Historic / Kayak & Canoe / Southeast Florida

Pelican Island: Oldest bird sanctuary in U.S.

Pelican Island as seen from the air.

Map of Pelican Island
~ For many years I drove past the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge and never gave it a second glance, focusing instead on my usual destination a few miles north near Sebastian Inlet, where I love to camp at Long Point Park.

A couple of weeks ago, while cruising A1A from Melbourne to Vero Beach, I saw the sign and decided to stop for a quick look and take a few pictures.

Of course, in the days that followed, I started seeing Pelican Island mentioned everywhere I looked.

Little did I know that Pelican Island was America’s first National Wildlife Refuge!

President Teddy Roosevelt, alarmed by the slaughter of pelicans and egrets for their plumage, signed an executive order in 1903 that banned hunting on the island and declared it a bird sanctuary. The three-acre island, Roosevelt had learned, was the last breeding ground for brown pelicans on the east coast.

Initially, the declaration did little to stop the hunters, and protecting the pelicans that flocked here was a dangerous job. Two wardens were killed in those early years, until a local boat builder named Paul Kroegel came along, armed and ready to defend his wards.

During the 1960s, this sanctuary once again faced a threat by man as developers moved into the area, seeking to purchase and build on the wetlands and islands surrounding Pelican Island.

Local citrus growers, commercial fisherman and sportsmen, aided by the Florida Audubon Society, convinced the state to expand the refuge to include more than 5,000 acres of diverse habitats on western Orchid Island and submerged lands in the Indian River Lagoon around the island.

Today, Pelican Island itself is accessible only by boat or chartered tours, but the surrounding preserve has been improved and now includes restrooms, a parking lot and a 2.5-mile nature trail and a boardwalk that goes out to an observation tower overlooking the island.

Jungle Trail at Pelican Island National Wildlife RefugeMore than 30 species of birds use Pelican Island as a rookery, roost or feeding ground, and 16 species nest here, including the brown pelican, wood stork, several varieties of egrets and herons, as well as the double-crested cormorant, anhinga and the American oystercatcher.

Pelican Island is located in the Indian River Lagoon, the most biologically diverse estuary in the country, wedged as it is in overlapping temperate and sub-tropical climates. The result is a diverse eco-system that features seagrass beds, oyster bars, mangrove islands, salt marsh, and maritime hammocks.

Fishing and clamming

Brown and white pelicans at Pelican Island NWR. (Photo: George Gentry, USFWS)

Brown and white pelicans at Pelican Island NWR. (Photo: George Gentry, USFWS)

Fishing is permitted in the open water areas of the Refuge. The Lagoon is a breeding ground, and you are close to Sebastian Inlet, where sportfish migrate into and out of the Lagoon on the tides. Popular catches are redfish, snook, sea trout, and mangrove snapper.

Recreational shellfish harvesting is permitted within the refuge, although you cannot use rakes, and you must steer clear of commercially leased areas, which are marked.  My wife and I have gone clamming in these waters many times with friends, although we didn’t know we were in the refuge at the time.

You can access the refuge’s clam beds from A1A, below Sebastian Inlet and above Pelican Island. Wear socks and wade out into the mud. You can feel the clams beneath your feet, and the water is shallow enough where you can reach down and pick them up with your hands once you find them.

This is a broad, shallow area with acres and acres of clam beds, and you’ll have better pickings the farther out you wade. Bring a tube or a kayak to hold onto and just poke around in the mud. Some folks like to show off and pick the clams up with their toes. I’m not that good, but I am picky. I prefer the smaller clams for steaming.

We set up a Coleman stove and steamed them right there, on shore, as we passed the afternoon away. What a great day that was!

Boat tours, kayak and canoe rentals

There are several vendors who offer pontoon boat tours of Pelican Island and the Lagoon, as well as kayak and canoe rentals,  or guided tours to view Pelican Island. The island itself is off limits, so viewing the island by boat offers excellent, up-close bird watching and photography opportunities.

If you choose a tour, keep in mind that tour dates and times vary, and reservations are advisable, especially during the peak migratory seasons in spring and fall.  Call any one of the vendors listed below for more information. Some vendors also host primitive overnight camping excursions on spoil islands in the Lagoon, so be sure to ask about that as well.

Here’s a list of vendors and their web sites:

Adventure Kayaking Tours, (772) 567-0522

Kayaks Etc, (888) 652-9257

Tropical Kayak Tours, (772) 778-3044

Inlet Marina Eco-Tours, (800) 952-1126

Note: Some of these vendors include tour calendars on their web sites. Tours to Pelican Island are on select dates, so be sure to call ahead and confirm your dates before making other plans around your visit.

For more information, call 772-562-3909 or visit the Pelican Island Preservation Society.


Official Pelican Island web site

History of Pelican Island on Wikipedia

Where to see spectacular white pelicans, winter visitors to Florida

What’s Nearby:

Sebastian Beach Inn: Beach bar evokes coastal history

Roughing It: St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park

Sebastian Inlet: Two great campgrounds

Center map
Riverview Park
Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge
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