“Living on the bluff, Paul could always watch the river and
the bird life on it, especially the pelicans, which were numerous.
From the top of the bluff he could see Pelican Island, to the east
in the Indian River, where the pelicans went to roost and nest.
He came to love them.” This excerpt is from a US Fish and
Wildlife Services pamphlet. The bluff is the Ais Indian Shell Mound
located in Sebastian, Florida. Paul, is Paul Kroegel, the first
warden of Pelican Island. Pelican Island just happens to be the
first US Wildlife Refuge established in 1903, commissioned by President
After growing up on the bluff in Sebastian, and spending years
attempting to scare off hunters and sportsmen from the thousands
of pelicans, Paul was hired for $1 per month, as warden of the Pelican
Island Reservation in 1903 by President Roosevelt. Paul lived his
passion for the next 23 years, in 1926 when warden services were
discontinued by the federal government. Early this year the Refuge
celebrated its 100th anniversary Today, Pelican Island, located
between Sebastian and Wabasso on the central east coast of Florida,
is a thriving reminder that what we do now can make a difference
My Mom and I traveled to Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge
from Rockledge, Florida to the sleepy yet “wild” town
of Sebastian. This is the kind of “wild” that I like.
The foliage appeared thicker and thicker as we drove closer to the
beach. The drive down A1A, the road that hugs the coast from the
tip to the bottom of Florida, was quiet and lush. We came across
an unexpected wildlife refuge on our drive north to the entrance
of Pelican Island. It’s Archie Carr Wildlife Refuge, the refuge
developed to provide nesting beaches for sea turtles. We drove into
the main entrance to Pelican Island onto the historic Jungle Trail.
My Mom was thrilled with the soothing experience of the canopy of
trees overhead. The view reminded her of the areas she visited in
Minnesota growing up.
After a brief visit to the developing Pelican Island Visitors Center
we headed north, past Sebastian Inlet State Park, to the State Park
Marina to catch our boat ride out to Pelican Island. As we pulled
into the parking lot I looked up to find what else but a mountain
bike trail? The South Beach Mountain Bike Trail offers 2.8 miles
long and offers views of Maritime Hammock, Coastal Marsh and the
Indian River Lagoon Point Road. Although I was a bit confused, I
was thrilled that Florida offered this taste of adventure. Alan,
the owner of the Inlet Explorer tour, his “mate”, Tasha,
the Siberian husky, and a 10-foot female manatee greeted us warmly.
Joel Meyer, the State Park Marina Manager and his assistant Rich
were prepared to take our small group of 4 out on the pontoon boat
headed to Pelican Island.
Joel began our education by explaining how the Inlet was formed
and providing descriptions of the ecological characteristics of
the place. The inlet and its islands were essentially man made from
the digging of an intercoastal waterway from New Jersey to Miami.
There are 6 inlets along the coast near Sebastian. The water in
the lagoon is defined as “brackish”, a mixture of salt
water from the ocean and the fresh water from the inland lakes.
These inlets help to clean the Indian River Lagoon. Two tides per
day help to cleanse the water that comes in from the lakes to the
west of the lagoon. Over 4,000 plant and animal species thrive in
the Lagoon. Underwater, the Johnson Sea Grass, an endangered species,
sways back and forth through the mucky water. The sea grass plays
a vital role amidst the lagoon. It serves as refuge for the smaller
creatures living there. Unfortunately, the sea grass reproduces
slowly, so protection of the grass is a priority.
There are 20 spoil (man made) islands present in the lagoon. Pelican
Island, however, is completely natural and may explain why so many
bird species thrive there. Once we reached the end of the channel
we sped up to reach the elusive island. On our way we passed several
surprising sites, including people exploring sand bars on foot,
advertising billboards planted in the middle of the river, Australian
pine trees, and a treasure boat docked along the west side of the
river. Mel Fisher, who discovered the Spanish galleon shipwreck
off the coast of Sebastian, designed the treasure boat. The Mel
Fisher Treasure Museum is located nearby. The facility displays
gold, jewelry and other artifacts from the numerous shipwrecks from
1750, discovered off the coast.
right along, a White Ibis flies overhead, mullet jump out of the
water, with spunk, and Joel spots a large school of dolphins and
proclaims that there are up to 500 dolphins in the Indian River
After much anticipation, we arrived at Pelican Island. We stopped
the boat away from the island in order to keep from disturbing the
hundreds of nesting birds. The island itself is down to 3-acres
(from 7-8) of land along the east side of the Indian River, between
Sebastian and Wabasso, and is a famed bird rookery. Today, the Wildlife
Refuge, most of which is leased by the State of Florida, encompasses
4,359 acres of mangrove islands and bottom land, and 5,400 acres
of species habitat.
In May, brown pelicans nest on the island, while white pelicans
fly north. Indeed, we witnessed large numbers of brown pelicans
nesting. There were some residual white pelicans hanging around
near the water. The white pelicans are huge, and somewhat swan-like.
The brown pelicans share the island with a large group of wood storks,
along with some egrets, both nesting in mangroves nearby.
The wood storks are eye-catching. They are tall birds that grow
from 34” to 47”. They are the only native stork in Florida
and are rarely seen north of the Carolinas. They sometimes soar
very high in the air. They are, unfortunately, declining due to
the disappearance of their habitats, swamps and wetlands.
The black, slick looking double crested cormorant is abundant at
Pelican Island. They are common along the coast in the summer. In
the winter they are found mainly south of New England. They migrate
along the coast of the US.
From what I could tell, we had views of quite a few egrets. For
the untrained eye, it is hard to tell the difference between herons
and egrets. The egrets have long legs and wade in shallow water.
They usually stand motionless waiting to spear fish. They are also
sometimes mistaken for cranes due to their height. You can be sure
it’s an egret if their long neck loops back in flight. The
Great White Heron makes the refuge home. At 50” long the majestic
bird is found in Florida only. It is larger than the various species
of egrets, which measures 38”. It has a yellow bill like the
egret, but is differentiated by its black legs.
highlight of the Island visit was a view of a roseate spoonbill.
The bird, with its pink wings and spoon-like bill, was exploring
the shoreline of the Island, strutting in and out of the mangrove
roots teasing us as we hoped for a longer glimpse.
Along the river on the way back to the marina we learn that there
is a clam farm nearby from which farmers supply _ of Florida and
1/3 of the clams in the US. Clams are sold once they reach 1”
Coconut Point, at the tip of Sebastian Inlet State Park, contains
a fenced in area for nesting terns. The Point also offers a fantastic
place for kayaking. The campground at the park is $17 per day and
has over 100 campsites. Camping in winter most certainly would require
a reservation. There is an entrance fee for the park also. The park
has a reservation office and a fishing museum.
One of the most fulfilling characteristics of the area is the effort
that was made to protect the royal terns from getting clobbered
by cars. Tall pipes jut up from the railing of the Sebastian Inlet
bridge. The terns see these pipes and immediately fly away from
the bridge, thus being saved from one more modern hazard.
The cove north of the Sebastian Inlet, close to the bridge, offers
a great swimming hole for all. The area is also attractive to shallow
water divers. The depth of the channel reaches up to 25 feet. Beware
of the speedboats traveling through the channel.
As we head back to the marina we notice dead pines along the shoreline.
Joel says these trees are indicative of the US Fish and Wildlife’s
resource management effort to control the exotic plants of the area,
such as these Australian Pines. These pines trees, which were brought
over years ago to protect orange groves, are now hazardous to the
essential native mangroves. Left to grow, the trees have, and will
continue to, grow out of control.
We passed a least tern resting on a speed post. The tern is tiny
at just 9” with a yellow bill. A natural oyster bar appears
near the dock, and mama manatee is still there, enjoying the warm
and safe waters.
Pelican Island Wildlife Refuge offers several ways for travelers
to visit. You can explore the island by foot on any one of the several
trails in the refuge. You can kayak, canoe, or hop aboard a pontoon
I was inspired by what I saw there. It can happen. We humans can
truly assist in the survival of the earth’s precious wildlife.
It seems it only takes the effort of a few select individuals. Those
people could just be Alan, Joel, Rich, Captain Ned, and even Tasha.
This isn’t merely the crew of the Inlet Explorer. They are
working magic, creating awareness of our wildlife, helping to preserve
and protect our natural resources. Flying home to Colorado, I remember
the crew, and recognize the Sebastian area as a tribute to the outdoors.
Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge
Hours 7:30 am – Sunset daily
Monday – Sunday
Alan and Nancy French