Natives, Pirates, Fisherman and mermaids of Gasparilla Island
Updated: Apr 8
I think I have finally escaped Florida’s version of groundhog’s day; the beanie is off, and I made it back to the island, knock on driftwood. I even think my dog was getting bored of me being home, walks had lost a bit of their excitement. Wednesday was our first day back, and as the perfect welcome back I got to do a golf cart tour. Yes, I am typically found out on the sound being my mermaid self, but I also love to change it up a bit and explore the island on the golfcart. It’s fun to share with tourist some the very special history and places on the island that they may miss venturing out on their own. Gasparilla Island has a long history dating back thousands of years with the Caloosahatchee Indians, the first fishman to inhabit the island. A lot has changed over the centuries, but fishing is still the main vibe of Gasparilla Island. Since there is way too much history to pack into one blog entry, I am just going to share a little bit about how the island got its name and a couple of spots I like to frequent.
Jose Gaspar was a pirate who claimed the waters of southwest Florida to be his along with any merchant ship that entered. Jose and his band of pirates spent their time seizing and robing ships off the gulf coast until 1821. Jose Gaspar called himself Gasparilla, and as legend has it Gasparilla Island was his hub and where he buried his treasure. Or this could just be a brilliant marketing story made up by Albert W Gilchrist that purchased land on Boca Grande and platted it for development as a town in 1897.
Imagine it’s the late 1800’s fishing ranches were thriving in charlotte harbor, and phosphate rock and its applications had just been discovered about 25 north in the Peace River. This tiny little island paradise we now call Gasparilla was the center focus because of having the deepest natural inlet turned port where phosphate could be shipped out around the world, and its thriving fishery. It didn’t take long to make the decision that a railroad would be a more effective means of transporting phosphate from the mining sites along the Peace River to the deep waters of the Boca Grande port, and that this train could also bring the wealthy people of the north down to experience the incredible fishing Boca waters has to offer. Tarpon is the fish that put Boca on the map, and to this day Boca Grande is still known for being the Tarpon capitol of the world.
And that is how we get to one of my most favorite spots on Gasparilla Island, Whidden’s marina. Whidden’s was established in 1926 by Sam Whidden, and back in those days it was more than a marina. It was a place the local maritime folk and islanders went to dance, celebrate and feast, I personally wish that aspect and vibe of the marina still was around. The Marina was added to the US register of historic places on December 28, 2000, and the family created a museum in the back of the marina that displays some of the coolest maritime antiques in existence. I may not be able to go and dance the night away like they did back then, but I can still stuff my face, get a cold drink, take in the history and enjoy conversation with the Whidden family in true old Florida fashion.
Another historic spot I enjoy is the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse (aka the “Range Light”) It was originally bult 1885 in Delaware and was used as the Delaware Breakwater Range Rear Light. By 1918 there had been so much erosion it needed to be decommissioned. In 1921 it was taken apart, and sent to Gasparilla in 1927 to be assembled, the light was then lit in 1932. The Coast Guard decommissioned the light in 2014 and the Barrier Islands Parks Society took over responsibility and restoration in 2016, turning the light back on in 2018. It is not just the range that makes this one of my favorite spots on the island, it is also the nature path through the sand dunes that surround the range. Dunes are an important ecosystem to our barrier island and this walk is the perfect place to learn why. When walking along the path it’s hard not to be taken in the century plants, sea grapes, sea oats, and beach sunflowers that protect the land from erosion during storms, high tides and winds.
Gasparilla Island truly is a paradise, and I am grateful every day I get to cross over the causeway. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t want to be doing what I do anywhere else. Its humbling to understand that I get to make a living on one of the most historically rich and beautiful islands in Florida.
Stay salty and grateful