If you are planning a drive along the eastern coast, whether it be just Florida or the entire US, make sure you include a visit to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. And by a visit, I mean about half a day – you’ll want it.
Located in northeastern Florida next to a NASA landing facility, Merritt Island is known for its manatee viewing. First, I should tell you that the wildlife refuge is pretty spread out and isn’t the easiest to find right away. Our GPS took us to a short deadend trail at first, before we realized the visitor center is located on Scrub Jay Way, off of Max Brewer Memorial Parkway (Route 402). The visitor center has a short boardwalk and wildlife viewing area. There are port-a-potties and it’s a nice spot to stretch your legs if you’ve been driving awhile. But beware of the snakes! I saw this part jokingly, but part seriously because I did almost step on a snake that had slithered into the path and scared me!
The maps that are available at the visitor center will tell you to make your way over to Courtenay Parkway North, cross the bridge, and park at the manatee viewing deck. You can do this, but from what I’ve heard and experienced, it’s not really the best manatee viewing spot. We didn’t see any when we were down there. Luckily, there were some regular visitors who directed us to what has become one of my favorite hidden spots in the world. Go back to your car, turn left on the parkway, cross the bridge (yes, again), and find the next right. Follow that road and you will get to a small cove with a long dock… and manatees. When we were there, we could see bubbles coming up from several manatees in the water near us, and a few who were up close and personal. We quickly learned that manatees are like big, lazy, water dogs. They love the attention and like to go where the people are. I could have spent all day at the dock watching them, but we knew to leave before it got dark.
Word of advice: DO NOT touch the manatees! They are an endangered species and heavily protected all over the world. It is against the law in Florida to purposely touch a manatee. (I was unaware of this at the time, but have since learned!) Just sit back on the dock and enjoy the majestic creatures that they are.
Once you’ve spent a fair amount of time watching the manatees near the docks – or your spouse/partner/friend tells you that it’s time to go, it’s time to get back in your car and drive along the Black Point Wildlife Trail. The daily fee for the trail has just recently increased to $10, but when we were there we did not pay a fee – that may be because we got there so late in the day that they were done collecting fees, I’m not sure. Regardless, you should drive along the trail. It’s 7 miles long and includes some beautiful views of Florida’s landscape. Drive slowly along the trail as not to frighten the wildlife and to get the best viewing opportunities. There are several places you can pull over for photos if you’d like, just be sure to respect the animals and plants in the area. When we drove along the trail, we saw a few alligators, a water snake, some frogs, and of course lots of birds. According to their website, early morning and late afternoon promise the best sights!
Now I’ve shared one of my all time favorite experiences with you – I hope you enjoy it as much as we did! We cannot wait to go back to watch the manatees again soon. For us it was free, maybe you’ll get lucky too!