For the majority of my explorations, I thoroughly research the area I plan to explore and then I go. Some of Florida’s Natural Wonders, however, are best experienced with the guidance of local experts…at least until you become familiar with the area. Florida’s crown jewel of estuaries, the Indian River Lagoon, is one of these Natural Wonders. Here are 3 reasons why:
- The Indian River Lagoon (IRL) is vast, stretching more than 150 miles from its northernmost point at Ponce de Leon Inlet in Volusia county to its southern boundary in Martin County. That’s almost half of Florida’s east coast! Where are the best places to go? Local experts know.
- The IRL boasts the greatest diversity of plant and animal life of any estuary in North America; more than 4,000 species, including 35 listed as threatened or endangered. Designated an Estuary of National Significance, it truly is a place right out of a National Geographic or Discovery Channel special. Local experts can point out and explain this broad array of nature.
- Navigating the backwater mazes of mangroves and tidal flats requires local knowledge. It’s very easy to become disoriented in the mangroves when there are no points of reference for navigation. Then there’s the mud flats that cut off many areas during low tide, so if you ventured into the mangroves during high tide, you might run into mud flats (or worse, oyster beds) blocking your return at low tide.
So the Indian River Lagoon is huge, complex to navigate and home to an incredible array of creatures. It’s easy to see why local experts can greatly enhance your lagoon experience. And since the Indian River Lagoon is so vast, we’re going to start at the north end in New Smyrna Beach, where I highly recommend the Marine Discovery Center as the go-to local experts.
This not-for-profit organization provides a wide range of top notch immersive experiences within the northern limits of the IRL and coastal Volusia County. Having spent 40 or more hours with the good people who staff the Marine Discovery Center, I have to say that I admire their passion for this vast Natural Wonder — both sharing it and caring for it. I’m pretty sure it’s a contagious strain of passion…if you’re lucky, you’ll catch it.
Whether you’re interested in ecotours, education or getting ecologically involved, the Marine Discovery Center has something for you. Did I mention that kids love this place, too? Here’s a closer look at their major offerings:
Discovery Ecotours, 40-Passenger Pontoon Boat:
- Dolphin Discovery: Each 2-hour tour is a unique experience, as the characters of the lagoon perform in real time – their real time. MDC’s Captains and Certified Florida Coastal Naturalists know the best places to catch all the action. The Bottlenose Dolphins here are unique to the Indian River Lagoon (your guide will explain), but you’re sure to see much more on your tour – Bald eagles, cormorants, herons, ibises, leaping mullet, manatees, osprey, roseate spoonbills and sea turtles are just the tip of the animal species iceberg, since 2,200 animal species call this home. Balancing the scale are 2,100 plant species, many producing gorgeous flowers. Ya, you’re going to want to bring your camera.
- Charters: Charter MDC’s 40-passenger pontoon boat for almost any occasion.You can choose from one of their standard packages or design your own. MDC experts will be glad to help you plan the perfect outing.
- Island Adventure: This 3-hour adventure takes guests to one of the many local islands in the Indian River Lagoon for an immersive experience. Certified Florida Coastal Naturalists lead you through a hands-on, feet-wet, up close and personal exploration of the island’s shores and shallows. You’ll have the opportunity to use dip nets and seine nets to help you find a variety of creatures. Don’t worry, they’ll show you how. Conchs, horseshoe crabs, sea stars, fish and jellyfish are all common finds.
- Sunset: The lagoon comes alive as the sun sets. The 2-hour sunset cruise takes you on a relaxing tour to the northern limits of the Indian River Lagoon at Ponce Inlet. Here you’ll see the famous Ponce de Leon Lighthouse and the historic Coast Guard Station. Many animals are actively pursuing their last meals before sundown, while the nocturnal ones prepare for their breakfasts.
Discovery Ecotours, Kayak:
- Guided Kayak Ecotours: Low and slow is a great way to go – whether you’ve never paddled a kayak before or are a seasoned pro, you’ll enjoy a fascinating trip through the maze of backwater mangroves in the Indian River Lagoon. A Certified Florida Coastal Naturalist leads the way, pointing out and providing information on a vast array of plants and animals, both indigenous and exotic, beneficial and invasive. Bring your own equipment or use MDC’s. Note for newbies: MDC provides free instruction and the kayaking is fun and leisurely.
Adventure Camps, Children:
- Adventure Camps are offered for children from 4 to 16 years of age during school holidays and summer break.
- Camps are arranged by age and activity. Here’s their 2014 Summer Camp Schedule.
- Sea Squirts is a program for children ranging from 2 to 5 years old, with an accompanying adult. More information here.
- K-12 Programs: 4 Education Programs for classrooms or entire grade levels (25 to 120 participants) – Indian River Lagoon Experience, Total Immersion, Discovery Eco-Adventure and Kayak Adventures. They’ll even bring a 60-minute program they call On The Road Again to your school (within their service area).
- Florida Master Naturalist Program: This award winning program is offered through the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension (UF/IFAS). The Marine Discovery Center offers the Coastal Systems module with a combination of hands-on classroom and field instruction.
- Public Lecture Series: Free Public Lectures, no reservations required. Subjects are always current and diverse, such as: Migratory Birds, The North Atlantic Right Whale, Birds of the Atlantic Beach and Marine Mammal Strandings. Check their calendar for more information.
- Special Kids Programs: Programs such as Introduction to Archery and Sea Squirts are specialized offerings. Check their calendar and home page for current offerings.
- The Marine Discovery Center takes community stewardship seriously, devoting a great deal of time and resources to improving the Indian River Lagoon. The MDC staff and volunteers are hands-on with such research and restoration projects as bird censuses and rescue, coastal clean-ups, eradication of invasive species, mammal stranding response, restoration of oyster reefs and mangroves, seagrass surveys and water quality monitoring. Their efforts help to ensure that this National Treasure and Florida’s Natural Wonder continues to thrive.
As you can see, the Marine Discovery Center has a great deal to offer. Their staff is friendly, knowledgeable and down to earth – always eager and excited to share the Indian River Lagoon experience. They are also well connected with experts in research organizations, universities and government agencies; many of these experts present at classes and public lectures offered through MDC.
One last point that makes the Marine Discovery Center stand out as an IRL liaison: They are a not-for-profit organization that exists “To protect and restore the Florida Coastal and Indian River Lagoon Ecosystems through education, research and community stewardship.” Their rates are very reasonable and the money they bring in is turned right around to benefit this amazing Florida Natural Wonder.
- Website Home Page: http://www.marinediscoverycenter.org/
- Calendar: http://www.marinediscoverycenter.org/news-photos/upcoming-events/
- Education Coordinator, Lou King: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Book a Tour: http://www.marinediscoverycenter.org/book-a-tour/
- Phone: 386-428-4828
- Location: 520 Barracuda Blvd. New Smyrna Beach, FL 32169