My thoughts never drift too far from the island of Cayo Costa. I have been intrigued by this barrier island since the first time I stepped foot on it, on a beautiful June day over two decades ago. Cayo Costa is eight miles long and just under 2,500 acres (2,426 to be more precise). The north end of the island is the widest at a mile wide. The island is located four miles east of Pine Island and six miles north of Captiva Island. The main State Park area is at the north end of the island, and it has a ranger station with several rustic cabins and tent sites available for rent through RESERVE AMERICA.
The beauties of Cayo Costa are many. If we were sitting around a campfire, I could go on for hours about Cayo Costa. Stargazing into the night sky on the island is a beautiful experience. There has not been a clear night while camping at Cayo Costa that I have not seen a shooting star. Watching the moon rise over the bayside and fall into the Gulf is another island experience that will stay with you for awhile.
The flora and fauna: wow! Cayo Costa has thirteen difference ecosystems and within each ecosystem a variety of native plants. It's a plant lover’s dream with sea oats visible for miles, and even the uncommon shrub the Joewood (Jacquinia keyensis). Joewood can be semi-common in the Florida Keys, but is not found much further north than Cayo Costa. Another interesting plant on the island is western prairie grass (Bouteloua hirsuta), which is a prominent grass (savanna like), but rare in most places in Florida. Native butterfly orchids are also found in the canopy of large oak trees.
There is an abundance of wildlife found on Cayo Costa. There are bobcats, raccoons, river otters, grey squirrels, feral pigs, and possibly the endangered Anastasia Island beach mouse. The bird life is plentiful with shorebirds, wading birds and raptors. Some common bird sightings you may see are ospreys, bald eagles, red shouldered hawks, seasonal frigate birds and the migratory white pelicans. If you are lucky enough, you may even see the illusive mangrove cuckoo. There is also the gopher tortoise, not to be confused with sea turtles. Sea turtles native to our region come ashore at night from April through October. The sea turtles laying their eggs at night are primarily loggerhead, or occasionally a green turtle or kemp's ridley.
Seashells have been a part of the culture in Southwest Florida for centuries and Cayo Costa is no exception. Remote beach areas of the island make Cayo Costa a great place for collecting many seashell species found in Southwest Florida. You can find over 165 different species of shells on Cayo Costa Island. A few common shells you may find are the Florida fighting conchs, scallops, cockles, spiny jewel box, sunray venus, and the moon snail just to name a few.
The history of Cayo Costa started with the Calusa Indians, who lived off of shell fish, fish and native plants. They constructed large engineered structures of shell, called shell mounds. Cayo Costa for centuries has been home to residents who fished. The Spanish Cuban fisherman had seasonal settlements on the island for many years. They would salt their catch (primarily mullet) and take it to Cuba in the spring time. In the 1800s there was a settlement with one well-known family, the Padillas, on the north end of the island. The family was associated with the Padilla fishing operation. According to the 1900 census on La Costa Island (Cayo Costa), there were 39 residents. The last of the pioneer families left the island in 1958.
Today the island is enjoyed by people from all over the world. The pleasure of an island just off the far horizon can still be found here in Southwest Florida. Whether it's under a starry night with a campfire or a beautiful June day with a hint of Joewood in the air, I hope you find yourself at Cayo Costa.
Captain Brian Holaway
To learn more about Cayo Costa State Park and how to access the island, here are a few links.