Within a Day Trip’s distance of Vero Beach and a stone’s throw from the launchpads of Kennedy Space Center, the natural beauty of Old Florida beckons. Canaveral National Seashore offers sundry habitats; bioluminescence tours reveal nature’s tiny aquatic beacons; and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge abounds with native flora and fauna.
Canaveral National Seashore
To people around the world, the name “Canaveral” is associated with space exploration. However, Canaveral National Seashore is a place to explore the beauty that can be found right here on our own planet.
Canaveral National Seashore encompasses multiple beaches and trails. There is Playalinda Beach, with its appropriate if repetitive name—“playalinda” means “beautiful beach” in Spanish; there are Castle Windy Trail and Eldora Hammock Trail, both offering intriguing hikes. Lagoon shoreline, expanses of rolling dunes, and hammocks are all included in this extensive preserve.
Ever wonder what a “hammock” really is? It may be a word you’ve heard without being quite sure of the definition. Here in Florida, a hammock is an area of slightly higher elevation than the surrounding land; it’s usually lush with vegetation and trees, including palms and live oaks.
Varied habitats mean varied species of plants and animals. The giant orchid, the celestial lily, the beachberry, and the prickly pear cactus are a few of the plants that thrive in the preserve. The Florida scrub jay—a threatened bird endemic to our state—is found at Canaveral National Seashore, as are the burrowing owl, the caracara (a remarkable bird of prey with a pale blue beak), and, of course, a wide variety of shorebird species.
A distinctive feature of the preserve is Turtle Mound, a midden of the lost Timucuan tribe. Middens are places where vast numbers of oyster shells as well as other discarded items were left, forming large mounds. They are recognized as important archaeological sites that provide insight into Native American cultures. Timucuan middens in the Canaveral area have been found to contain many animal bones, suggesting that, along with thriving on shellfish, the Timucuans were skilled hunters. It is thought that Timucuan braves used the ingenious technique of wearing the hides and even the heads of deer to camouflage themselves while on the hunt.
“Turtle Mound has been on the maps from the time of the Spanish and French explorers,” says Interpretive Park Ranger Ashley Lord. “It’s the largest shell mound on the east coast of Florida.” Indeed, the mound is 75 feet tall, and a boardwalk leads to a platform at the top, where sweeping vistas can be enjoyed. It is a site that reflects the history of this part of Florida from a time long before the Space Age—an ancient landmark of Canaveral.
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7611 S. Atlantic Ave., New Smyrna Beach
Imagine kayaking through a harbor by night and seeing the waters around you glisten with brilliant hues of blue and green. Imagine a dolphin swimming by and leaving an electric blue wake. Imagine a school of fish flickering like sparks of cold fire.
What could this possibly be? It is the natural phenomenon of bioluminescence, and it can be observed on Florida’s Space Coast. A number of companies offer kayaking tours that can make that observation an up-close and immersive experience. Tours are offered throughout the summer and through September. Furthermore, some of the kayaks are glass bottomed or clear, making for especially good views of the phenomenon.
Vero Beach resident Diane DiGiacomo, who took a night kayaking tour in Titusville, says, “I think the best way to describe it is to say it felt like I was in a science-fiction movie.” The effect of bioluminescence can be sparked by the splash of a paddle or by your own hand brushing against the waters. The movements of sea creatures make for spectacular effects, so the guides on the kayaking trips will seek out places where fish and wildlife can be found. “The blue of the water is amazing,” says DiGiacomo. “And we saw both manatees and dolphins swimming right up to us.” Not only was it exciting to see these marine mammals, but the blue glow of their wake amid the bioluminescence was unforgettable.
These brilliant colors in the nighttime waters seem mysterious. What really causes them? Certain marine creatures naturally illuminate in response to movement in the water, creating a cold light comparable to that of fireflies. In the waters off the Space Coast, the bioluminescent creatures are dinoflagellates and comb jellies. The dinoflagellates are too tiny to be visible to the naked eye. Up to 300,000 of them may be found in a single liter of water. The comb jellies are gelatinous marine animals, somewhat like jellyfish. The bioluminescence of the comb jellies has a pulsating effect as they move through the water.
So, while it does indeed look like something out of science fiction, you need not travel to another planet to see these brilliant colors lighting up the waters. Bioluminescence is exotic, wondrous—and close to home. As DiGiacomo puts it, “It seems like something that can’t be happening in nature—and yet it is.”
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Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
From bald eagles to manatees, from wading birds to sea turtles, there is much to discover at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. And with six different hiking trails, two driving routes, and kayaking tours available, there’s a variety of options for how to carry out your exploration.
Visitor Services Manager Kimberly King-Wrenn recommends starting your day by chatting with the volunteers at the Visitor Center. “We have very knowledgeable volunteers who can help you plan,” and they will base their recommendations on your interests and your preferred activity level. A 15-minute orientation video is featured as well.
One of the self-guided driving tours is Black Point Wildlife Drive, which winds along a rich expanse of salt marshes. Bring your binoculars and have your camera ready, especially if you are a birdwatcher. Among the species you may see are reddish egrets, tricolored herons, green herons, roseate spoonbills, and glossy ibises; their colorful names fit their artful plumage.
For example, the glossy ibis has the same kind of distinctively curved bill as the white ibis commonly seen in the Vero Beach area, but its feathers are darker in hue while being brilliantly iridescent; a glossy ibis in the sunlight can look like a prince among birds, wearing royal robes of purple and emerald green.
The salt marsh habitat provides good feeding grounds for these birds and others. Tall pine trees, also found in the refuge, can hold the monumental nests of bald eagles. The majestic birds can often be seen there, looking out from the nests like sentinels with golden eyes scanning the horizon, or soaring in the air with the white feathers of their heads glistening against a blue sky.
There is a $10 fee for Black Point Wildlife Drive; yearly passes and senior discounts are available. But whether your preference is driving, hiking, or kayaking, there is always much to see.
“In winter, we have the migrants, so there will be an abundance of birds,” King-Wrenn says. Spring and summer migrations can make for many species of warblers and shorebirds. “In the summer, you can see the manatees in the water.” If you’re an early-morning visitor, at any time of the year, “you might see deer, bobcats, or other mammals.” Thus, she concludes, “It doesn’t matter what time of day you come, or what season you come.” A trip to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge can always be rewarding.