The beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel welcome millions of tourists every year.
This summer, as the coronavirus pandemic continued to affect travel, members of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau decided if people couldn’t come to the beaches, they would take the beaches to the people.
In late June, they debuted Shellcast—a podcast dedicated to taking a little bit of southwest Florida to listeners around the world.
“We think of it as kind of a beach break for your ears,” says Jackie Parker, communications manager for the VCB and host of the podcast. “We’re really excited about it. It’s been well-received and it’s so much fun.”
The area is known for pristine beaches, shelling, birding, exotic wildlife, outdoor adventure and much more.
Sanibel Island is home to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, which is the only museum in the world devoted solely to shells and mollusks.
The podcast’s first episode looks at some of the different shells available and touches on why a visit to the museum before going shelling gives anyone interested in finding and identifying shells on Sanibel an unparalleled overview.
Each podcast features an interview with a local expert. Most conversations take place on-site, in the elements, so listeners can hear natural sounds such as birds flying overhead or water lapping nearby and almost feel like they are right there in Southwest Florida.
In Episode 3, Jackie takes a boat tour of Pine Island Sound with Captain Brian Holaway, who owns Captain Brian on the Water. He describes what he sees happening around him.
“We’ve got a little pod of dolphins out in front of us, probably about six of them,” Brian says. “As they come up to the boat to take a breath, you can see the little mist from the blow hole.”
He explains what makes these dolphins so special.
“These are Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, and here in Pine Island Sound, we have a resident population of 600,” Brian says. “These guys are one of two groups in the world of dolphins that don’t migrate because they have such an abundant food source. There’s a group in Australia and a group right here in Pine Island Sound.”
Every podcast educates and informs, while highlighting different area attractions.
In Episode 2, listeners learn about Cape Coral’s Burrowing Owl Festival. The tiny owl with beautiful yellow eyes is the only owl that lives underground. While most owls only come out at night, burrowing owls are often seen in the daytime. People come from all over the globe to see these birds.
Jackie, who has a journalism background and once worked as a travel editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, partners with audio technician Ray Sarracino to put each podcast together. She says her ability to write and edit stories has translated well to the podcast.
“Storytelling is storytelling, just a different medium,” Jackie says. “We really try to make the episodes conversational and fun.”
Making each episode sound interesting and effortless requires an extensive amount of research. Jackie has found she enjoys that aspect of it more than she imagined.
“Shellcast has been a blast,” Jackie says. “Being able to have the chance to visit and revisit so many places gives me an even greater appreciation for how unique southwest Florida is.”
That enthusiasm shines through every podcast.
“When I’m excited about something—like when we took a boat ride by Salty Approach, this tiny landing strip on North Captiva Island in Episode 3, or in Episode 4, when we talk about the replica of the gazebo that was on the Caloosahatchee River back when Thomas Edison was alive—well, that’s me being thrilled to learn about those things here in our slice of paradise.”
Edison spent a number of winters in Fort Myers, and had a home there.
The idea to create a podcast was in the works before the pandemic as a way to introduce people to the area and help them plan a trip. As the pandemic evolved, it was quickly seen as a way to offer a safe, virtual beach visit.
Podcasts have grown in popularity. The 2020 Infinite Dial Study shows more than 104 million people ages 12 and older listen to podcasts on a regular basis.
Since Shellcast debuted in June, listeners have downloaded episodes across the county, and as far away as Germany, Spain, England and Ireland. New episodes are added monthly and cover a wide range of topics.
Episode 5 features an interview with Ranger Toni Westland at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island.
“Upcoming episodes include Lee County craft breweries, we’re going to get back on the water and visit the historic fish shacks in Pine Island Sound, and maybe even interview New York Times best-selling author Randy Wayne White,” Jackie says. “His Doc Ford series is set on Sanibel and he lives here.”
Jackie hopes the podcast introduces listeners to new and different aspects of the area, and encourages them to visit when its safe and feasible for them to come.
Shellcast is available on fortmyers-sanibel.com, Apple Podcasts, Spotify and iHeartRadio.