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The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is named after Jay Norwood Darling, a political cartoonist. Darling was instrumental in the effort to block the sale of the environmentally valuable land to the developers on Sanibel. At Darling’s urging, President Truman signed an executive order creating the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge in 1945.

It was created as a safeguard and to enhance the pristine wildlife habitat, to protect endangered and threatened species. It also provides feeding, nesting and roosting areas for migratory birds.

The first “Ding” Darling Visitor Center was completed in 1982. During the first month the center attracted 11,000 eager and inquisitive visitors. In June of 1982, the seven founding, Board of Directors met with refuge staff to establish the new Friends Group. In October of the same year the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society was established when the Florida Secretary of State approved the articles of incorporation. By 1999, DDWS had grown enough to build its own Visitor & Education Center.

 The Society has won several prestigious awards:

  • 1991 – The National Voluntary Service Award from National Recreation and Parks Association
  • 1999 – Friends Group of the year from the National Wildlife Refuge Association
  • 2009 – The Southeast Regional Directors Award for its help with distributing funds for refuge employees who were affected by Hurricane Katrina.
  • 2012 – Lee County tourism awarded the Society its Chrysalis Award for Education and the Society of American Travel Writers gave them its Phoenix Award for conservation in tourism. 

Membership ranks have gone from the original seven board members in 1982 to about 1,500 today.

The refuge is part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the U.S. Today the refuge provides important habitats to over 245 species of birds. Rangers of J.N. “Ding” Darling say that this is a “refuge” not a park. That means that its primary mission is to protect the abundant wildlife within its 6,400 acres.

There are many ways to see “Ding” Darling:

You can get on a tram with an experienced naturalist hosted by Tarpon Bay Explorers. It is an hour and a half tour, reservations are recommended. It runs several times throughout the day every day except Friday’s. Adults: $13 & Children: $8.

Hop on a bike or hike one of the paths, there are many stops on the way with QR codes with lots of information. You can also download the Discover Nature app and play a scavenger hunt game while you are there. Fun for everyone!

Tarpon Bay Explorers will rent you a kayak or SUP if you are looking for a bit of a different view. You can get up close and personal with Gulf wildlife. You can go out on your own or on a guided tour.

You definitely don’t want to miss stopping at the free Visitor Center, with many lectures and tour information. You can find numerous field guides, nature books, children's books, shirts, postcards, and many other items. Revenues from the Nature Gift Store help fund many programs at the Refuge.

Ready to come see this beautiful refuge? Book your next Sanibel Vacation here