Punta Gorda, Florida: Right Up Next to Nature

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Life in Punta Gorda, Fla., revolves around the water.
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Volunteers prepare to count scallops in Charlotte Harbor.

Each year, MOTHER EARTH NEWS selects a handful of communities to highlight in our annual Great Places feature. Check out the other towns featured in our 2013 installment of 9 Great Places You’ve (Maybe) Never Heard of.

Punta Gorda, Florida. If spending a day snorkeling and counting scallops in tall seagrass sounds like your idea of volunteerism, check out this seaside town on Florida’s Gulf Coast, located at the confluence of the Peace River and Charlotte Harbor.

Each year, more than 40 boat captains and 150 snorkelers help inventory the scallop populations as part of the Charlotte Harbor Great Bay Scallop Search. “The scallop is one of the canaries in the ocean’s ‘coal mine,’ so it’s vital to track its welfare,” says Betty Staugler, the Sea Grant Marine Science agent with the University of Florida Charlotte County Extension Service, which sponsors the event.

Scallop welfare isn’t so great right now, Staugler says, though the population is coming back from a complete collapse in the 1980s. “The assistance of our citizen-scientist volunteers makes it possible for us to do this study each year.”

Punta Gorda has an impressive comeback story of its own. In August 2004, Hurricane Charley devastated the city, but the disaster also led to a revitalization of much of the city’s infrastructure. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coastal Services Center has recognized Punta Gorda for developing and implementing its robust climate change adaptation plan.

“Most towns don’t get an opportunity to rethink and rebuild themselves,” says Michael Heller, publisher of Water Life, a magazine devoted to fishing and boating in Punta Gorda and Charlotte Harbor. “After the hurricane hit, the city embarked on building state-of-the-art public facilities, as well as a hiking and biking trail that includes a 15-mile ‘Ring Around the City.’”

Charlotte Harbor is the United States’ 17th-largest estuary and the second largest in Florida, with an open water surface area of about 270 square miles. The harbor and adjacent estuaries’ more than 70 miles of undeveloped shoreline make up one of the most pristine, productive coastal ecosystems in the state, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The region is home to five national wildlife refuges and five protected aquatic preserves. The Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail snakes through the harbor and along the shoreline, providing a wealth of opportunities for bird-watching and wildlife observation.

It’s heaven for boaters and fishermen, but local values center equally on caring for the area’s wildlife and ecosystems. Organizations such as the Peace River Wildlife Center enable volunteers to put their love of the natural world to practical use helping rehabilitate injured and orphaned Florida wildlife.

Stats: Punta Gorda, Florida

Population: 16,697
Climate: 51” annual avg. precip.; January avg. high: 75 degrees Fahrenheit; July avg. high: 91 degrees F
Median household income: $59,090
Median home price: $157,300

K.C. Compton is senior editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and formerly was Editor in Chief of our sister publications, The Herb Companion and GRIT. A huge fan of the food chain, from molecules to meals on the table, K.C. is passionate about the idea that most of what we need to be healthy can be found in the garden. Find her on .