Photo of area around Crab Island, taken around 1960. Courtesy of Florida Memories.
As you crawl in bumper-to-bumper traffic across the Destin bridge toward cheaper digs in Fort Walton Beach, you glance to the right, over Choctawhatchee Bay, and witness a festive armada of pontoon boats, Jet Skis and floating tiki huts – enough hulls to rival the Normandy invasion fleet of 1944.
Welcome to Crab Island in Destin, Florida.
What you will not witness is an actual island. That’s because there is no island at Crab Island. Oh, there are enough boats packed together to walk across the area. But there is no actual island at Crab Island.
(Full disclosure: In the darkest heart of winter, when certain conditions are met – a freezing wind blows from the north, the tides have gone south, and the water temperature is sufficient to turn your toenails blue – an attentive passerby may spot the barest wisp of sand peeking above the waves, fit for only lazy gulls or to scour the props of passing boats.)
Repeat: There is no island at Crab Island.
Instead, it’s a sandbar – perfect for laying anchor, breaking out the cooler, cranking up your rowdiest Spotify playlist and greeting the folks in the boat next door, who have better beer. Adored by tourists and abhorred by locals, Crab Island is THE party spot on the Emerald Coast.
What is less known is its history.
Read books about Destin and the Emerald Coast, search websites, or talk to locals, and you get two versions of the Crab Island origin story. One or the other may be true, or the truth may lie somewhere between.
Version 1 – the “official” version by dint of it being related more often than any other – is that Crab Island was created by the Army Corps of Engineers when the Destin East Pass was dredged and shouldered with the rock jetties that still exist today.
Sand picked up by the dredge was deposited in Choctawhatchee Bay about a quarter mile north and east of the Destin bridge (known by the Department of Transportation and non-locals as the Marler Bridge), creating what is called a “spoil” island, and it was this spit of land that became known as Crab Island due to its shape as
seen from the air.
As islands go it was substantial. Saltmeadow cordgrass, sea oats and even small shrubs grew at its heart. Its sandy beaches were thick with gulls, terns and sandpipers, and it even offered a tidal pool, a perfect wading spot for the littlest of boaters picnicking along its shores.
This version of the story holds that Crab Island was destroyed by Hurricane Eloise in 1975 and the sand was washed in a southwesterly direction, shoaling just north of the bridge to create the popular anchorage we now call Crab Island. (Except there is no island. Remember?)
A variation of this story suggests there were TWO islands northeast of the bridge, and they were done in by changes in currents created when the Corps dredged the Intracoastal Waterway channel in Choctawhatchee Bay.
But another, less official version of the Crab Island story, held by the oldest of the locals, maintains there WAS an actual island at the current location of Crab Island, and it existed back in the days of Herbert Hoover, “My Favorite Husband” on the Philco, and the chart-topping stylings of Duke Ellington and Judy Garland. They say it suffered death by a thousand cuts, like your checking account since January 2022, by increased boat traffic and the dredging of the East Pass.
They acknowledge the existence of the “other” island farther up in the bay but refer to it as “Bird Island” due to its popularity with native shorebirds. It vanished in the 1970s due to changes in currents in the bay and Gulf of Mexico created by dredging.
Nothing remains of either island – real or reputed – except sandbars. The spot closer to the bridge has the enviable advantage of being scoured by fresh, clean Gulf of Mexico water every day as the tide ebbs and flows. That water is the color photographers wait for when they are shooting assignments for travel magazines and chambers of commerce. Locals, however, dismiss the Crab Island oeuvre as a drunken free-for-all that fills the water with urine and poop.
What’s undeniable is its popularity. Crab Island draws thousands of locals visitors each summer and has created an industry of boat rentals, restaurants, bars, personal watercraft rentals and other commercial caterers to the folks who go there for a good time. It keeps the Coast Guard and local law enforcement busy during the summer, not to mention area ERs, which treat all the injuries and maladies you’d expect from a large gathering of partying boaters (some of whom may have had a few too many).
Are there crabs at Crab Island. Sure. Crab Island is a home to all the sea life that inhabits this part of the Florida Panhandle, from sharks and dolphins to stingrays, jellyfish and bluefish. Crab Island, like the bay the gulf, is not a swimming pool.
But hey, don’t take our word for it. Check the bazillion YouTube videos about the area, or better yet, come to the Emerald Coast, bring your boat or rent one in Destin, putter on out to Crab Island and see for yourself what it’s all about.
Just remember: There is no island at Crab Island.
By longtime local resident Eugene Porch