Florida's East Coast
Colorful Cocoa Beach Crusin'
The East Coast of Florida may not be on many travelers’ list
of “Places to Visit in my Lifetime”, YET! To a wide
range of audiences the east coast of Florida means Daytona Beach,
one of the most famous beaches in the world. An increasing number
of adventurers, though, are finding reason to visit this area, rich
in ecological and historical diversity.
grew up here, in a small town called Rockledge, Florida; 25 miles
from the beach, Cocoa Beach that is. Rockledge is approximately
30 miles from Cape Canaveral, home of the Space Center and I Dream
of Jeanie. My adolescent days were about Disney excursions, water
skiing in the Indian River, and lots of lounging on the beach.
Recently I began to hear and read about the growth of ecotourism
in Brevard County. Finally, my curiosity was peaked. I was suddenly
ready and eager to learn more about my home. So off I went, back
to Rockledge, miles and miles from my current home in Colorado to
experience a series of eco and adventure related activities near
my hometown. I was anxious to learn that there’s more to the
area than Disney World vacations. Ready, set, go!
My first excursion departed not far from my parents’ home
in Rockledge, with Island Boat Lines in Merritt Island, Florida.
I pulled into the sand covered parking lot as the skies opened up!
This converted “Colorado girl”, minus umbrella, scrambles
out of the car with a soon to be soaked notepad, and runs towards
the entrance of Banana Breeze, a casual restaurant on the shore
of the Banana River in Merritt Island. I wondered if I was in the
right place. I asked myself, “Is this where the boat docks?”
It was indeed. Completely soaked, I stepped on board the boat. “Okay,
now this is a tropical adventure,” I thought once I found
a spot to sit on the boat. I proceeded to wipe off the sheets of
water on my legs, arms and face. The boat was chock full of teachers.
It was their last day of school and they were there to blow off
steam, I believe. Island Boat Lines serves schools in the area quite
often. John Shaffen, a Pre-K Special Needs Class teacher wrote Penny
to say, “Thank you for the opportunity to let these kids enjoy
the Banana River, a place that is not easily accessible to them.”
I sat up front in order to learn from J.B., the captain of the boat.
Jimmy Buffet was playing in the background as we shoved off the
small docking area. The huge drops of rain cascading in front of
the boat ironically reminded me of the large flakes of snow I had
just seen in Denver the week before. Think Key West, and you can
imagine what my views were like as we pulled away from the dock.
The back area of the restaurant is an outside patio covered in sand,
with white patio chairs, and umbrellas, overlooking the water. These
sites were, indeed, reminiscent of the Florida Keys.
Flaherty is a native Floridian, former Miss Florida USA, owner of
the Island Boat Lines, and affectionately known as “The Boat
Lady. Penny enthusiastically came over to greet me and didn’t
stop smiling the entire time we backed out through narrow channel
out to the cruise area. It seems she has a reputation for having
an everlasting and infectious smile. Penny maintains a small and
colorful fleet of boats, christened with names such as the “ISLANDER”,
“SUNSHINE” & “MISS FLORIDAUSA.
Our cruise takes us from Merritt Island to the Thousand Islands
of Cocoa Beach, an area I never knew of while living in Florida.
As we cruise towards the beach, I spot brown pelicans diving for
lunch. The rain cloud breeze as we move across the water was invigorating,
like that cool spring air I feel as I roll down the mountain on
my mountain bike in Colorado.
Palm trees dot the shoreline to the north of us; mangroves blanket
the Cocoa Beach shoreline. Captain J.B. told me that it is unlawful
for people to touch the mangroves. The plant species helps to protect
small and young fish from predators. They hide in the roots along
the shore until they are big, or brave, enough to come out. The
bushy plants also protect the shore from wind erosion. “Wow.
I had no idea,” I proclaim. Captain J.B. continued to share
his knowledge. I learn that there are red, black, and white mangroves.
Roots that flare up upwards from the plant are characteristic of
the red mangrove. The black mangrove has dark leaves, and the white
mangroves have no distinguishable roots. Captain J.B. points out
a line of dead mangroves to the left, where branches rise from tiny
gray swells. The captain explains this death occurred from a Florida
winter freeze. How fragile they are!
we move along the Cocoa Beach shore blue herring fly past and above
us. J.B. tells me that the blue herring’s wingspan can reach
7 feet! Fortunately, they seem to be thriving here. We also were
awarded the chance to view white ibis, a great white egret, and
ducks with their ducklings, as we floated up the river. Then, someone
spotted a dolphin. We peered out over the glassy water and finally
notice the fin. Unfortunately, it wasn’t playtime for this
dolphin. We watched as the beautiful creature faded back under water.
Along the way we also had the chance to view a variety of greenery
and wildlife. In the way of foliage we saw banyan trees, Australian
pines, and majestic coconut palms. Wildlife sites included blue
herring nests, a raccoon, green herring, osprey (once endangered),
swallows, very small terns and finally, manatees. We were able to
spot the manatees thanks to the kayakers who were sitting still
in water while they stroked the manatees. We got close enough to
see the manatees roll around in anticipation of more caressing.
Did you know that manatees eat 60-80 pounds of sea grass per day,
that their teeth rejuvenate after they’ve worn them down,
that they grow up to 13 feet in length and 3,000 pounds in weigh,
or that they can hold their breath for 8 – 10 minutes underwater?
I sure didn’t!
It was fabulous to learn about the landscape and history of the
area, as well as the wildlife. In the 1800’s the Ais Indians
were home here, before the settlers came through. A fantastic resource
for learning more about the background of Cocoa Beach and the Banana
River is the Florida Historic Society’s Museum in Cocoa Village,
Cocoa, only a few miles from Cocoa Beach.
In addition, to her riverboat eco-tours, Island Boat Lines offers
a Port Canaveral and Historic Cocoa Village Transfer. The tour picks
up passengers from Cocoa Village, where there is an abundance of
dining and shopping, and transfers to Port Canaveral where passengers
are provided a 1-hour tour of the Port.
Penny, and Island Boat Lines, is a shining star on the East Coast
of Florida! Penny confirms what any passenger can is sure to interpret
through their visit with her. She says, “I have learned to
get through my life by having passion in my ideas, sharing my ideas
with everyone I know, and then doing it big.” Indeed she has,
and continues, to share. Today, Penny serves on many important committees
including, Visit Florida, Brevard Cultural Alliance, Space Coast
Office of Tourism, and the Charter Captains Association, among many
As far as “doing it big” Penny continues to step up
the plate. Island Boat Lines has recently obtained a 99-foot paddleboat
used in an MGM movie starring Denzel Washington. The boat will be
christened “M/V Indian River Queen” is being refurbished
in the style of the old-fashioned paddleboats. Once completed the
boat will house a historical photo gallery, with vintage photos
of Brevard County and its waterways. The staff onboard the “Queen
will dress in the style of the early 1800’s. The Indian River
Queen is scheduled to begin operating this Fall 2003 for groups,
weddings and private charters, and Spring 2004 for daily excursions.
Island Boat Lines
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