Roughly 800 years ago, native Americans succeeded in altering the elevation of southwestern Florida’s Captiva Island. On present-day South Seas Island Resort, the Calusa Nation enjoyed their own resort atmosphere of free food, feasting on whelk and conch meat and discarding the shells onto a heap so high that it dominated local topography.
After their 18-foot-high remake of Captiva’s contour lines, the Calusa then lent the island map a permanent name. Captain Brian Holaway of Captiva Cruises cites the 15th-century map name for the adjacent maritime pass to the Gulf of Mexico. Boca del Cautivo, it reads — Captive’s Entrance. Captured Calusa natives, their free living over, were transported away on Spanish ships from this point.
The mollusk landscaping of the natives produced a second local tourist attraction — Cabbage Key. They left a 38-foot-tall shell heap there. At the top of the steps leading up to the famous restaurant there is a white-painted queen conch shell. A huge banyon tree rooted itself in the calcium-rich soil and stands like a wall by the restaurant windows.
Various cultural figures have built a heritage atop the native landscaping. Mary Roberts Rinehart oversaw the restaurant creation in 1938. John F. Kennedy, Ernest Hemingway, Jimmy Buffet and Julia Roberts are among noted visitors. Buffet frequented the restaurant and performed there often enough that he glorified it by association. The song Cheeseburgers in Paradise was allegedly inspired by his visits.
The conch shells that built these Calusa memorials no longer exist locally as a species. Lust for the pink-lined shells for the tourist trade led to their extinction. Ancient specimens lie as memorials within memorials on the shell heaps. The mountain-building is over.