NAPLES, Fla. — A beautiful March morning on the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary boardwalk usually entails sounds of wrens and woodpeckers and views of sleepy alligators or an occasional Great Egret plucking a meal from the Lettuce Lake. This week it included much more for a few lucky visitors.
“I was astonished!” said Irene Shetler of Fairhope, Alabama. She and her son Chris, a Marco Island resident, were visiting the Sanctuary for the first time and never expected to see a Florida panther. She saw the panther walking on the boardwalk near the shortcut trail.
“It was such a beautiful animal. I didn’t want to alarm it,” Shetler added, saying that it was only about twenty feet down the boardwalk from her. She knew if she tried fumbling for her phone, she would have to take her eyes off of it.
Meanwhile, Jeanne Swope, another first-time visitor to the Sanctuary from the Philadelphia area, had been visiting family on Sanibel and decided to check out the Sanctuary. She heard the panther trotting toward her as she was turning onto the shortcut trail and saw it through the trees, heading toward the Shetlers.
Swope had her phone handy and got a few shots as the panther was trying to decide which way to go. Once it realized it did not have the boardwalk to itself, it went over the side and into the shallow water.
Swope said that she had heard of encounters with cougars in the Rockies and did not want it to get too close, so she stood up on her tippy toes with her arms up. While she was relieved it did not come closer, she was thrilled to see it as close as she did.
“What an amazing experience! We need to conserve more land and preserve habitat in this world,” Swope concluded.
Audubon partners with several conservation groups, local large landowners, Collier County, the state of Florida, and the federal government to collaboratively protect panther habitat, which includes efforts to implement more wildlife crossings under roads through known panther habitat.
Florida panther sightings are unusual but no longer as rare at the Sanctuary, as staff and volunteer sightings have become more numerous. Nearly five years ago, a visitor shot a video of her experience on the boardwalk as a panther speed past her.
Advance tickets are required to visit the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary boardwalk. The Sanctuary is open daily from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., with the most availability between 8 – 10 a.m. on weekdays. For tickets: www.corkscrew.audubon.org/visit.