Sanibel Island &ndash To the Snowy Egret perched on a branch above, I'm sure I'm a curious sight. Soaked in sweat and Skin-So-Soft bug repellent, I'm brandishing a kayak paddle in a vain attempt to extricate myself from the tangled growth of red mangrove that anchors Sanibel Island 9.5 kilometres off Florida's southwest coast, 30 kilometres north of Fort Myers.
Sanibel's citizens, fearing runaway development, established the Manhattan-sized island as a city state in 1974, enacting strict conservation ordinances. You won't find billboards, fast food joints, street lights or stoplights. Cars, travelling no faster than 50 kph, must yield to cyclists. Over 37 kilometres of bike trails wind through palm-shaded woodlands dotted with subtropical flora in yellows, pinks and reds that attract over 230 species of birds.
A favourite nesting spot, the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge (named for a Pulitzer Prize-winning eco-cartoonist), occupies two-thirds of the island, making Sanibel the only U.S. city to contain such a national treasure.
As I gaze at blue herons, anhingas and my friend above, it's easy to forget the group I haven't seen for half an hour. I suddenly remember park ranger Kevin Godsea's warning: "With miles of tributaries, bays and estuaries, it's quite possible to get lost in here."
I do a three-point turn and shove off, resisting the urge to use my hands against the barnacled branches that house tree crabs and the mangrove marsh snake.
A loud splash sounds from behind. Alligator is my first thought. Zero to 30 kilometres per hour in two seconds, with a powerful tail is my next. Tripling my speed, I round a bend and spy four green plastic kayaks identical to mine bobbing in the distance.
After an apropos lunch of farmed alligator strips and key lime pie, I hit the bike trail to the beach. En route, I pass the pretty Song of the Sea Inn, boasting feng shue'd gardens that provide guests with pick-your-own mangoes, pineapples, passion fruit and aromatic herbs.
At my nesting spot, the Sundial beach resort, a wedding is in progress. Curious guests on their way to the beach stop and stare at the groom, who's broadcasting his vows over a subdued sound system.
"I take you, Becky, to be my lawfully wedded wife." A makeshift altar has been erected in the sand, and the prominent "Turtle Nesting Season. All beach chairs and umbrellas will be removed at 5 pm" sign has been draped in a white veil.
I pick my way through the crowd and emerge on an ungroomed, shell-covered beach littered with what appear to be hundreds of snake skins - clay-coloured metre-long lightning whelk egg casings packed with baby conch. Shore birds alight to feast on the live ones. On a stretch devoid of bronzed boobs and bulging crotches, the only Speedo is mine. My bathing cap bobs above gentle waves.
Huge brown pelicans perched in gangs of four and five keep watch from coconut palms lining the beach.
It's early evening, and the wedding reception is winding down. Patio lights have been lowered in compliance with Sanibel's dark skies ordinance, protecting nesting loggerhead turtles. The sky holds five times as many stars as can normally be seen from urban backyards.
As the last strains of Love Me Tender fade away, the outdoor bar closes. The bride, rumoured to have spent the evening alone, clears out, leaving the beach to more stable occupants: osprey, who mate for life and return every year to their nesting perches above.