Paddling around the oldest bird sanctuary in the United States is an unforgettable experience, especially if you do it at dusk when all the birds are coming in to roost. Pelican Island is a three-acre island in the Indian River Lagoon just east of Sebastian. The island became the first national wildlife refuge for the protection of nesting birds in 1903, after President Theodore Roosevelt dedicated it with a simple executive action.
The tiny island is off limits to anyone but birds, and the shallow water surrounding it makes it difficult to get to with most motor crafts, so it’s a beautiful, easy paddle for kayakers. The closest access point is a little-known launch on Historic Jungle Trail, a 7.8 mile-long scenic and sandy road originally built in the 1920s for citrus growers to move their produce.
You can access Jungle Trail from FL510 by turning north onto the trail just about a half-mile west of A1A, and following it for roughly a mile and a half; or take A1A north for 2.6 miles until you see the sign for Pelican Island National Refuge, turn left and follow the trail south 1.3 miles. The sandy launch is nestled in the mangroves on the west side of the road with enough room to park a few cars.
Once launched, head north (right) and follow the shoreline until you see the open water of the lagoon. Beeline toward the sparse, tiny island situated between the mangrove shoreline and a large spoil island. Pilings with signage surround the island designating the restricted boundary. If you reach the wide channel of the Indian River Lagoon, you’ve gone too far.
Pelican Island is home to more than 30 species of birds including the brown pelicans, wood storks, oyster catchers, egrets, herons, roseate spoonbills, cormorants, and anhinga to name a few. During the winter months, white pelicans migrate from their northern homes to join in the fun.
You’re guaranteed to see a plethora of birds whenever you go, but paddling at dusk will provide the most activity. The sound of the flocks coming home to roost can be deafening and mesmerizing at the same time. Just sit quietly and observe as they fly directly overhead to their place on the island.
If you do head out at sunset, make sure to mark the mangroves where you exited to the lagoon with a glow stick so you can find your way back. All mangroves look alike in the dark and more than one kayaker has gotten lost in the maze.