North America’s most biologically diverse estuary stretches along 40% of Florida’s east coast, some 156 miles, creating the longest barrier island chain in the U.S. More than 4,300 plant and animal species call the Indian River Lagoon home, including 35 that are listed as either threatened or endangered. Mangroves, manatees and dolphins thrive here, along with hundreds of bird and fish species.
This huge playground provides recreation for 11 million people annually. There are thousands of places to explore and just as many launch points for paddlers. I’ve put together a couple of short paddling trips in this estuary of national significance, so you can have a taste. Both are located in Volusia County, the northernmost of the 5 counties the IRL occupies.
The first trip explores the very northern reaches of the lagoon, where the Halifax River and Mosquito Lagoon meet. Mosquito Lagoon is a small part of the Indian River Lagoon…and the Indian River is not a river at all. It can be very confusing, as some names are misleading and locals often use names interchangeably. One thing you can count on in the summer months — Mosquito Lagoon is well named.
I left from the Marine Discovery Center and snaked my way through the mangroves, exploring a couple of major side trails as I headed toward Ponce Inlet, the northernmost point of the Indian River Lagoon. If you want a guided tour, the good folks at the MDC will be happy to show you around. If you’d rather head out on your own, check out the WonderMap for all the details of my trip, including photo waypoints.
The second trip was much shorter and quite different, but just as enjoyable. For this trip I left from JB’s Fish Camp and paddled to Turtle Mound in Canaveral National Seashore. There’s a large picnic area with easy access right on Mosquito Lagoon. The boardwalk hike to the top of Turtle Mound is beautiful, offering a lush, tropical atmosphere. But the view from the top is what it’s all about.
Turtle Mound is the largest Native American shell midden on the U.S. mainland, standing about 50 feet tall. I know 50 feet doesn’t seem that high…except when it’s the highest point for as far as the eye can see. And since it sits on a narrow barrier island, there are incredible vistas of both the Indian River Lagoon (Mosquito Lagoon section) and the Atlantic Ocean. Looking down over a coastal forest canopy that stretches right down to the seashore is a breathtaking sight.
Dolphins and manatees seem to prefer the main channels…and probably for good reason. The Indian River Lagoon is shallow – in fact, one tour captain likes to tell his passengers that if the boat sinks, just step out and wade to shore. Get out of the main channel and the water levels can decrease rapidly. When exploring the backwaters in the mangroves, you need to pay attention to the tide, lest you get stranded until the next high tide. Many sandbars and oyster beds are exposed at low tide. Oysters are like shards of glass. If you step or (far worse) fall into an oyster bed, expect to get cut to shreds. No joke.
One last piece of advice for exploring the mangroves: Know where you are. GPS is recommended. With a fully charged battery. When you’re paddling through narrow channels that join other channels, with twists and turns and zero points of reference, it’s easy to get lost.
Trip from Marine Discovery Center WonderMap:
Trip from JB’s Fish Camp to Turtle Mound WonderMap: