DESTIN — A place that was once a sandy oasis in the middle of a quiet bay has become, by most accounts, a watery commercial and entertainment hub.

Crab Island has always been one of Destin’s most iconic natural resources. Various historical accounts depict visitors frequenting the spot as far back as the early 1900s, although it was an actual island loosely resembling the shape of a crab.

Over time the island sank underwater, and today it is arguably one of the most famous sand bars along the Gulf of Mexico. Visitors and locals alike converge on the “island” to party, relax and soak up the sun, and, as more people visit Crab Island, it has become more of a microcosm of the city of Destin than an outlying boater’s destination.

The island is now home to two floating water parks, at least four floating bars/restaurants, a floating stage and, on any given Saturday or Sunday, thousands of boaters.

"There wasn't anybody there"

According to the Destin History and Fishing Museum, some research suggests the island originally was a peninsula that was attached to the Destin mainland. Over time and with the forging of the East Pass and Destin jetties, the island slowly sank, and by the 1970s the island was all but completely submerged.

Kathy Marler Blue, executive director of the Destin History and Fishing Museum, said Crab Island used to be a place she and her family would visit often.

“When I was little and growing up, my dad would take my cousins and I by boat (to Crab Island),” Blue said. “He would fish, and we’d play in the sand and look for the little bird eggs and watch the mamma birds dive bomb into the water. We’d crab and fish and swim.

“But back in those days, there wasn’t anybody there,” she added. “I remember sand dunes and sea oats, scrubs and bushes. Most of the birds that were out there had their nests in the open sand.”

"A unique venue"

As Crab Island has become more and more popular, entrepreneurs have taken their businesses to the water. Floating tiki huts serving up cold drinks, hamburgers and even burritos have emerged.

Mike DePass, known more commonly as “Crab Island Mike,” saw a business opportunity at Crab Island as early as 2003. It wasn’t until around 2012 when he really capitalized on the opportunity and opened a floating restaurant called Crab Island Burgers, serving up hamburgers and daiquiris to hungry boaters.

He then built a 24-foot by 24-foot floating stage and started inviting local bands to play on the water.

“It’s a unique venue for any band to play on,” he said. “It’s totally powered, self sufficient. There’s no plugs going to the land. … (The bands) do it pro bono to have a good time. Of course, we do feed them though. But other than that they come out from Georgia, Louisiana and Alabama just to come and have a good time.”

DePass estimates that on busy holiday weekends and with popular bands, as many as 7,000 people will come for concerts at Crab Island.

Robert Kopald, a Destin resident and business owner, will host his second Electric Island Music Festival, in which DJs will set up double-decker pontoon boats to play for crowds at the end of July. He said the music festival on the water is a unique experience that makes concerts different and fun.

“We put about $20,000 worth of speakers and equipment on a rental pontoon and hooked it up,” he said. “It was a challenge at first, but overall we had at one point over 300 people out there docked up on boats and floats around us, just dancing in the water and having a good time.”

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"Nothing but paradise"

Crab Island has been known for its rowdy antics, but floating playgrounds and bounce houses have lured kids and families to the island as well. Still, most people are divided as to whether Crab Island is family-friendly.

Lisa Buchman has frequented Crab Island since she and her husband Marty moved to Destin in 2002. She said she used to take her children there, but doesn’t think it's very family-friendly anymore.

“We actually used to go out quite often. As we’ve gotten older we don’t go as much, but it’s entertaining. It’s always a good day,” she said. “When we first moved here and would go out, it was a little bit more family-oriented. There were a lot more kids out here than there are now. And while there’s a playground, it’s not kid-oriented anymore. It’s a party.”

Kopald agreed.

“How I would and how my friends describe it, is maybe an AJ’s-type bar in the water. That is what is has evolved into,” he said. “I don’t know how family-friendly it is anymore, but me being in my early 30s, that’s kind of how we see it. It’s a big party in the water.”

But DePass said he and the other vendors have gone to great lengths to ensure children and families have a great time.

“(All the vendors) help each other and police ourselves,” DePass said. “We try to keep the beer cans and everything out of the water. We’re like a little self-policing community between all the vendors.

“We’re getting a major increase in people out here each year,” DePass added. “They see the bouncy houses, how shallow the water is, how beautiful it is, the opportunity to snorkel and stand-up paddleboard, to play volleyball, sample foods that are out there. It’s nothing but paradise when you’re out there on a beautiful sunny day. You wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”