Amid heavy rains, thunder and lightning, the Friends of Cayo Costa State Park held its 3rd annual Cayo Costa Heritage Day Saturday.
On the ferry ride from Pine Island to Cayo Costa, Michael Arringdale, captain of the Tropic Star, offered a great deal of Charlotte Harbor and Calusa Indian history on the one hour cruise.
"Charlotte Harbor is an estuary," he said. "This is where there is a confluence of salt water and fresh water creating a brackish water. Brackish water is an extremely rich environment where all kinds of sea life is found."
Cayo Costa Heritage Day participants do some shelling on the beach.
Capt. Arringdale described in detail the area the boat was passing through, pointing out Gasparilla Island and Boca Grande where Ponce de Leon passed through in 1513 to meet the Calusa Indians for the first time. De Leon wrote in his journal that he had met "giants". The average European was about 5 feet tall - the average Calusa Indian was about 6 feet tall.
"Unfortunately, after Ponce de Leon left ,the Calusa he had sown the seeds of their destruction," Arringdale said. "He left them with European diseases that they had no defense for - common things like cold, flu, small pox and chicken pox. By the time de Leon returned 10 years later, those diseases has decimated the Calusa people and when he sailed his ships into Charlotte Harbor the second time, the Calusa were there to meet him. They had a war right here in these waters over several days. Ponce de Leon was mortally wounded in that battle by an arrow tipped with a toxin from a tree that grows locally here. By the year 1750, after thousands of years here in Southwest Florida, there were no Calusa left."
Arriving on the island, a tram was waiting for the first arrivals.
"This is our 3rd Annual Heritage Day here on the island," Norm Meshaw, chairman of the event, said. "I do wish we were doing a lot better, the weather's not helping. Tropic Star, Captiva Cruises and Kingfisher Fleets are all doing a great job bringing people to the island but the weather is working against us. Heritage Day gives people a chance to see the unique qualities of this pristine barrier island and enjoy all of the activities planned for this Heritage Day."
Meshaw continued, "What the Friends of Cayo Costa does is promote the island and raise funds to assist the state park with much needed repairs - things like brakes on the golf carts, parts for generators and even computer parts. Because of the bureaucracy holding things up, we can expedite the process and help with these things."
"At the first Heritage Day, we actually had some of the pioneers who used to live on the island here to talk about their lives on the island," he added "They actually had a school boat that would pick them up from the different islands and take them to the school house on Costa Blanca. Back then these islands were occupied by Spanish fishermen. They would net fish these waters for mullet and then sell the dried mullet on the mainland and also in Cuba."
Heritage Day featured a full day of activities celebrating the heritage of Cayo Costa State park. There were nature tours of the island where visitors could see great egrets, piping plovers, snowy egrets, gopher tortoises and even bald eagles. Beach tours and kayak tours offered the opportunity to explore the nine miles of beaches on the island. These beaches offer unlimited fishing, shelling, picnicking and swimming. There were also palm weavers, live music, a turtle nesting lecture and plenty of activities for the kids.
The history tour of Cemetery Trail was interesting to this in attendance. Cemetery Trail takes visitors to the site of a small graveyard dating back to the early 1900s and contains the grave of Capt. Peter Nelson, who died in 1919. Nelson moved to Lee County from Denmark in 1887 when cattle were shipped from Lee County to Cuba. Nelson died in September 1919. His stone reads, "After Life's Fitful Fever He Sleeps Well."
Sea turtles have traveled the seas for 100 million years and have outlived almost all of the prehistoric animals they shared the planet with. As most Floridians know, they still establish nests along the Florida coast. Cayo Costa State Park Ranger Dave Kobelt offered a lecture on these turtles.
"Every morning we go out and walk the nine miles of beach looking for turtle tracks and we determine what kind of turtle it is, and locate the nests," Kobelt said. "We have five different turtles that nest in Florida, however the loggerhead turtle is the most prevalent. They are a 'threatened' species, not endangered. Last year there was something like 18,000 females that nested on our beaches. They are at risk from a variety of things but our hope is through our efforts we can get them off the threatened list."
This year the Friends of Cayo Costa have established an "adopt a turtle nest" program where website visitors can adopt a sea turtle nest. Visit: Www.FriendsofCayoCosta.org to learn more and adopt a nest.
"Overall, in spite of the weather, this was a great event," Vince Tapager, owner of Tropic Star, said. "We had fewer people because of the weather but everyone sure seemed to have a great time."
John and Mary Brennan arrived on the 8 a.m. Tropic Star trip.
"We've done this before," John Brennan said. "I think it was the year before last and we enjoyed it very much. The lectures are very educational and when we were here last time we rented bicycles to explore the island on our own. With this weather I don't think we will be doing that this year."
At the end of the day plaques of appreciation were awarded to David Dearth, assistant park manager for Cayo Costa State Park; Paul McCarthy, owner of Captiva Cruises; and Vince Tapager, owner of Tropic Star Cruises.
"I'd like to thank all of the volunteers," Meshaw said. "They always do such a remarkable job. Volunteers from the Calusa Blueway, Gulf Coast Kayak, Randell Research Center, Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserve, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Shorebird Alliance, Manatee Park and Palm Art Playshop."
The Friends of Cayo Costa State Park is based in Pine Island. FCC is a division of Barrier Island Park Society, a 501C3 organization which is the official Citizens Support Organization for Cayo Costa, Don Pedro, Gasparilla, Stump Pass Beach State Parks and Boca Grande Lighthouse Museum. All funds raised by FCC will be used exclusively for Cayo Costa State Park.
Visit www.FriendsofCayoCosta.org for information.