As important, varied, and wondrous as the beach is the dune directly behind it. All along Sanibel, dune vegetation separates roads and structures from the sands and shells of the beach.

Today I walked 2 miles to the Sanibel Lighthouse.

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While there, I followed one of the many paths through the dunes to the lighthouse base. In the shadow of the lighthouse itself, I came across a sign all about gopher tortoises.

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I thought, wouldn’t it be great to see one. I turned around, and there one was, munching on a plant directly behind me.

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Even crazier than that, when I went to take a picture, who should hop into the shot but a marsh rabbit!

 

And here you see the two of them, practically in the shadow of the Sanibel Lighthouse as the Sun rises over another perfect day. Maybe they’re getting ready for their big race.

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Gopher tortoises can live up to 80 years in the wild. Unlike sea turtles, which lay hundreds of eggs in a season, gopher tortoises produce only 3 to 15 eggs in a clutch. The eggs take about 90 days to hatch (as opposed to 60 for the much larger sea turtles). Like sea turtles, though, hatchling gopher tortoises have a lot of predators. Only about 1 in 100 will live to reproductive age.

The tortoises are herbivores. They munch on many different plants found in the dunes, including prickly pear cactus and the various berries and fruits that the dune plants produce. Occasionally the tortoises will munch on dead animal bones, probably for the calcium they provide.

Gopher tortoises are diggers. As such, they play a vital role in the dune ecosystem. Many other animals, including the marsh rabbit, use old gopher tortoise burrows for shade, protection, even nesting. These include the Florida mouse, the burrowing owl, the threatened eastern indigo snake and, yes, the marsh rabbit, too.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of dunes to a place like Sanibel. The protection the dune affords works both directions. The dune protects the beach from landward runoff erosion by capturing and slowing the moving water. It also protects the land from saltwater intrusions during hurricanes or storms. The beach grass digs down into the soil, creating a network of intertwined roots that holds the loose soil in place. Here you can see that near the lighthouse those roots are helping slow erosion, keeping the lighthouse and its surroundings stable.

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While the dunes are vital, the beach itself will always be my first love. So let me finish this entry with one final picture, a lovely sanderling reflected the sunrise over my favorite island. You can see the lighthouse away off to the left – I still had some walking to do.

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