360° photos of Sanibel Water Quality

Lighthouse 360°  Virtual Tour

Water quality and clarity in Southwest Florida is influenced by freshwater flows from the Caloosahatchee impacting the ecology of our estuary and coastal waters, property values, and tourism-based economy. On this virtual tour of Lighthouse Beach Park, you can see how the water clarity at this location is influenced over time. We take weekly panoramic images with a drone 300 feet in the air to see where the frontal zone of the Caloosahatchee River meets with the Gulf of Mexico. When discharges from the Caloosahatchee are high, the brown water flows from the mouth of the river wrapping around the barrier islands towards the Gulf of Mexico. When the water from Lake Okeechobee meets with the ocean it creates a creates a visual where the brown water of the river-plume frontal zone meets the blue-green water of the Gulf of Mexico.


Sanibel Island is home to beautiful beaches, mangrove and seagrass ecosystems, and diverse wildlife due to the preservation of 67% of land for conservation. However, the water surrounding Sanibel is heavily influenced by nutrients and runoff from the Caloosahatchee Estuary which is connected to the largest watershed in Florida via Lake Okeechobee. It is part of a complex, highly managed system that is federally required to balance the needs for flood control, navigation, the environment, and water supply for agricultural and municipalities by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

The Caloosahatchee Estuary has been artificially connected to Lake Okeechobee since the late 1800’s and is now seasonally dependent on flows from Lake Okeechobee due to the intense development of the land around the formally winding, slow moving river. During the dry season, the estuary needs a minimum amount of flow in order to maintain a salinity gradient that supports thriving seagrass and oyster populations. During the wet season, most of the water that goes into the estuary comes from runoff along the Caloosahatchee watershed, which can cause tannin colored, nutrient laden water to enter our estuary. Excessive fertilizer usage and outdated septic and stormwater systems contribute to high nutrient loads throughout the watershed and get flushed into the estuary after it rains. In addition, there are too many times when the needs of agriculture are prioritized over the needs of the environment, and we are inundated with damaging high flows directly from the polluted waters of Lake Okeechobee. With these damaging flows comes high nutrient loads which results in devastating effects in our natural and human communities including macroalgae overgrowth, harmful algal blooms (red tide), low oxygen, seagrass die off, oyster mortality, fish kills, wildlife death, threats to human health, loss of tourism, and negative effects on the economy.

These panoramic images are also published in the Caloosahatchee & Estuary Conditions weekly reportwhich is sent to the USACE, the South Florida Water Management District, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, as well as hundreds of engaged citizens. This interactive virtual tour supports the SCCF science-to-solutions approach and we hope it will shed light on the damaging effects of high flows from Lake Okeechobee and help us better advocate for the Caloosahatchee Estuary.