Paddle power

Karen’s Kayaks

Karen McLaughlin, left, owner of Karen’s Kayaks, launches one of her eco tours out of Honest John’s Fish Camp, off A1A in south Melbourne Beach, where, she says, there is more marine life and the lagoon’s water quality is better. JASON HOOK

Commune with nature while kayaking on the lagoon

The first rays of sunshine cross over your shoulder. The lagoon is still, as it usually is at dawn. You dip your paddle into the water, listening to the soft patter of the drips off the blade. There is no wind today, perfect for kayaking. You are alone, feeling that deep, personal connection with nature.

The Brevard section of the Indian River Lagoon is long and wide. The shores are lined with mangroves in many areas. To the south there are spoil islands that make for perfect kayak destinations. Dolphins, manatees, even cownose rays, might greet you as you kayak.

The best kayaking is done close to the lagoon’s shoreline. You paddle along channels in the mangroves, or paddle out to spoil islands that were piled up by dredging when the Intracoastal Waterway was created.

One of the more popular put-in points for kayakers is Ramp Road in Cocoa Beach, perhaps better known as Thousand Islands Park. There aren’t really a thousand islands, but there are plenty enough to make for an interesting paddle trip.

“I love Thousand Islands,” Jeremy Edgar said. “You feel like you can get lost in nature.”

Kathy Jones and Fred Mays paddle together

Kathy Jones and Fred Mays paddle together during a tour of the Indian River Lagoon in southern Brevard County. KAREN McLAUGHLIN


Edgar owns Fin Expeditions, a kayak outfitter. He runs three trips a day; two out of Ramp Road and a sunset trip from the Cocoa Beach Country Club. Usually his outings are small, a maximum of about 10 paddlers.

“We don’t want to be a giant guide, we are more into education,” Edgar explained.

On this particular trip, I joined a mother and daughter from Iowa, Jenny and Brooklynn. It was their first time in a kayak. Ian Gibbs, our guide, led us on a two-hour tour of the mangrove trails in the lagoon, pointing out the bird life and even a small cownose ray that approached our kayaks.

“I’m definitely getting a kayak when I get home,” Brooklynn exclaimed when the tour was over.

We didn’t see any dolphins or manatees on this trip, but had an adventure as Gibbs led us through narrow, twisting mangrove tunnels, barely wide enough to navigate.

Did you know there are three types of mangroves? White, black and red. Their long roots provide habitat for small fish in the lagoon.

An instructor with Fin Expeditions

An instructor with Fin Expeditions explains how to hold a paddle before the kayakers set out on a tour at Thousand Islands Park in Cocoa Beach. FRED MAYS


Another popular launch site is Honest John’s Fish Camp, off A1A in south Melbourne Beach. The main outfitter is Karen McLaughlin of Karen’s Kayaks. She likes this location because water quality is generally better in south Brevard and there is more marine life.

We spotted manatees and dolphins as we paddled along the paddle trail between mangroves, which are the only tree that lives with its roots in salt water.

“Paddlers get to see for themselves how important mangroves are,” McLaughlin said. “We have incredible wildlife in the lagoon and when people love something they’ll protect it. I think we are fortunate to have what we have in Brevard County.”

Kayaking seems to have picked up as the pandemic wanes. People want to get outside. Outfitters report an increase in business and retail sellers say kayaks are in demand and often on backorder.

Interest is so strong that Laura McWilliams, an accounting software specialist, bought a bunch of boats and started her own side business as a kayak outfitter earlier this year.

“I’m starting out small, maybe three trips a week, usually just a handful of people, mostly friends,” she said.


McWilliams leads trips on the Sebastian River and the southern Indian River Lagoon. My group paddled out to Bird Island, which is a bird sanctuary just offshore from Micco.

bioluminescence light show

After dark during the summer months, the lagoon offers a spectacular bioluminescence light show thought to be one of the best places in the world to experience the phenomenon. FIN EXPEDITIONS PHOTOS

After dark during the summer months, the lagoon offers a spectacular bioluminescence light show. Your kayak paddle stroke triggers a chemical reaction in the algae that causes it to glow. The phenomenon is usually seen when the water is warm and algae are more prevalent. The Indian River Lagoon is one of the best places in the world to experience this dazzling light show. Fin Expeditions offers sunset-bioluminescence tours from its launch site at the Cocoa Beach Country Club.

The lagoon is a vast expanse of open water. Kayaking can be difficult when the wind picks up. It’s important to be aware of the conditions and know your limits. A life jacket is required on each kayak, and some outfitters require you to wear them. In my opinion, wearing one is smart because I’ve had experience trying to put one on while treading in deep water. It isn’t easy.

A wide brimmed hat, sunscreen and bottled water are essential when kayaking. I usually wear a lightweight long-sleeved shirt to protect from the sun.

Kayakers explore the mangroves

Kayakers explore the mangroves, which are the only trees that live with their roots in salt water, during a tour of Thousand Island Park. FRED MAYS


There are two types of kayaks: sit-in and sit-on-top. The sit-in keeps you dryer. The sit-on-top is usually wider and more stable, but figure your butt is going to get wet. I like the sit-on-top for recreational paddling because it’s easier to get in and out of. If you’re doing a long paddle or going kayak camping, a sit-in kayak with front and back hatches is a better choice.

Kayaks are often outfitted for fishing, with rod holder brackets. Fishing kayaks are usually sit-on-top kayaks.

The length of the kayak is important. The longer the boat the straighter line it will track, and the faster you can go. Most commonly boats are about 12 feet long for recreational use.

There is nothing inherently dangerous about kayaking. The lagoon waters are usually calm and in most places, not very deep. In the unlikely event that you should spill, in most areas you can just stand up.

The main thing to watch for is the wind. Close to shore you are protected by mangroves. Out in the open water you have to contend with wind and choppy waves. It can make paddling difficult.

A lot has been made in recent years about the effort to clean up the lagoon’s waters and get seagrass to grow again on the bottom, making it a better habitat for manatees and other marine animals. Even so, the lagoon is a tremendous asset and kayaking is just one way to take advantage of this watery resource nature has provided.


Safety is always a concern when on the water and all kayakers wear life jackets in case they take an accidental dip in the lagoon.

If you go …

There are many kayak outfitters in Brevard County who offer guided and self-guided paddle trips in the Indian River Lagoon.

Here are three:

Karen’s Kayaks
Melbourne Beach
Operator and guide: Karen McLaughlin or 321.848.8416
Guided tours from Honest John’s Fish Camp, Melbourne Beach

Fin Expeditions*
Cocoa Beach
Owner: Jeremy Edgar or 321.698.7233
Guided tours from Ramp Road Park, Cocoa Beach
and Cocoa Beach Country Club
*Offers a discount for local customers.

Owner: Laura McWilliams or 321.208.2667
Guided tours from various locations on the lagoon

Web services like Yelp and TripAdvisor will help you search
for other kayak outfitters in Brevard County.

Fred Mays

Fred Mays is a freelance writer and photographer who resides in Satellite Beach. He is a retired television journalist, and active on media issues with the Brevard Indian River Lagoon Coalition. His blog is