Friends of Tigertail Beach
 Marco Island, FL

Exteme makeover, island style

Marco’s Sand Dollar Island takes on new configuration

By Elysa Batista,

Friday, April 27, 2007

It used to take Lee Gundersen 2 1/2 hours to walk from one end of Sand Dollar Island to the other.

That changed six weeks ago.

“I still walk out to the end of Sand Dollar, unless it’s really high tide,” said Gundersen, a part-time booth attendant at Tigertail Beach park whose daily walk now has been shortened by about 30 minutes.

Call it Extreme Makeover Island Edition.

Sand Dollar Island, which juts off from Marco Island’s Tigertail Beach, recently had part of its northern tip lopped off by Mother Nature.

“This breakthrough is pretty wide,” Marco Island’s Environmental Specialist Nancy Richie said of the water-filled gap that now divides Sand Dollar Island. “It might be a permanent chop-off.”

But it certainly won’t be the final look for the shoal which has become a favorite spot with residents and visitors — human and wildlife alike.

“I don’t know how long it (the chopped bit) will last,” Richie said. “We’ll see what happens.”

No longer a sandbar, the pit of sand known as Sand Dollar Island has evolved over the years.

Fifteen years ago, Sand Dollar was an actual island, then between 1993 and 1996 it connected to Tigertail Beach.

“This is a dynamic shoal system that is constantly changing,” said Charlette Roman, former president of The Friends of Tigertail Beach, a local conservation and education group. “It’s part of the natural barrier island process. The sand is always moving.”

Even though it is located inside the Marco city limits, Sand Dollar falls under the protective jurisdiction of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The island was designated a critical wildlife area due to what Roman calls “an alignment of the stars.”

The sandy beaches and dunes provide valuable nesting and resting grounds for more than 60 species of migratory birds and resident coastal birds throughout the year.

Meanwhile, low tide at Tigertail Lagoon provides a smorgasbord of food for the birds.

From March to September four species of beach-nesting birds call Sand Dollar Island and Tigertail Beach home, including Snowy Plovers, Least Terns, Black Skimmers and Wilson’s Plovers.

In addition, the southern portion of Sand Dollar has been known to host loggerhead turtle nests during nesting season, which runs from May to the end of October.

“I think sometimes when you see this (pointing toward the high-rises dotting Marco’s beach front) you lose sight of the fact that you’re on a barrier island,” Roman said Friday morning after giving a tour of Tigertail Lagoon to a group from the Florida Marine Science Educators Association. “This (the Tigertail and Sand Dollar Island system) is unique.”

However, Sand Dollar’s changing shape did spark rumors that another island had resurfaced from the Gulf’s depths.

An old mooring spot favored by Marco boaters, Coconut Island was a sandy shoal about 250 yards from Hideaway Beach.

Coconut Island met its demise in 2005 due to Hurricane Wilma, when rough seas and minor storm surge all but buried the island under water.

But reports of Coconut’s comeback may have been slightly exaggerated, said wildlife biologist Ricardo Zambrano of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“Far from it,” Zambrano said. “You might have to get your feet wet, but it is a continuation of Sand Dollar. That’s just the natural process for the channel.”

And that’s just fine with Gundersen.

During low tide she walks in knee-deep water to reach the end of Sand Dollar, but doesn’t cross during high tide due to a strong current through the gap.

“It’s common sense,” she said.

The sand can be deceptive and people have to always be careful when they’re dealing with water, Gundersen said.

As for the life span of Sand Dollar’s latest incarnation?

“It will be interesting to see what happens after hurricane season,” she said.