Vero Beach – The sun has only been up an hour or so, long enough to burn a purple haze from the horizon and start to glimmer off the ocean waters. But already several guests are awake and down at the beach, watching wildlife biologist Rachel Smith search for the eggs of a loggerhead sea turtle.
“We only dig with our hands,” Smith says, gently scooping sand up with her fingers. “I have to do this slowly so that I don’t poke the eggs.”
At the oceanfront Disney’s Vero Beach Resort in Central Florida, two hours southeast of Orlando, guests can enjoy the same focus on children’s activities as they do at Disney’s theme parks – from outdoor treasure hunts, to games at the pool, to arts, crafts and movie nights by the campfire.
And in this laid-back atmosphere, they also get a special emphasis on adventures in nature and conservation programs fit for kids and adults – visitors on a family vacation, or on a break from a cruise or enjoying a couple’s romantic get-away. There are the 10-mile “bike hikes” in cooler months around the nearby Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge; kayaking in the Atlantic Ocean or the Indian River Lagoon; scuba diving lessons and surfing classes.
The turtles, though, are especially popular. The resort sits immediately south of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge and shares a stretch of beach that makes up between a quarter and a third of all loggerhead and green sea turtle nesting grounds in the country and an important nesting area for leatherback turtles as well. The three sea turtle species are among seven that are either threatened or endangered.
On this morning, about a half-dozen guests step tentatively closer as Smith sits down in the sand, gently digging with her fingers.
“How do you know where to dig?” asks Melinda Battani of Fort Lauderdale, standing nearby with her daughter, her son and his wife.
Smith is part of the conservation team at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. The team’s biologists take turns conducting morning surveys of turtle nests from March to October as part of the Statewide Nesting Beach Survey overseen by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Once she finds the turtle’s tracks and possibility of a nest, Smith leads guests there. Now she must guess and confirm where the eggs are – usually right in the center between the ridges of sand left in the imprint made by the mother turtle’s huge body.
“Got em,” Smith says following a few minutes of gentle digging. After the resort guests take turns leaning over to peer down at the small eggs, Smith covers the hole and asks a young guest to help put stakes in the ground to mark off and protect what could be 100 eggs down in the sand.
Through June and July guests can also buy tickets to take part in night walks where biologists with night-vision goggles lead them in watching loggerhead turtles come ashore and lay eggs.
After the morning walks and breakfast, by mid-morning about a dozen people from several families gather in the lounge, lathered up with suntan lotion and armed with bottled water, ready for a kayaking trip on the Indian River Lagoon. Barbie Martz, the resort’s naturalist, drives them in a big white van 25 miles south to a park, where two guides with Adventure Kayaking outfit them with life jackets and help them set off in single or tandem kayaks.
At the guests glide across the still waters, guide Paul Roske tells them about the thousands of plant and animal species and hundreds of types of birds in these brackish waters, as well as the threats posed to the lagoon by dangerous algae blooms and fertilizer runoff.
“Keep your eyes open. You never know what you’ll see,” Roske says.
A light breeze stirs ripples in the great expanse of water, which sparkles in the morning sunlight. The silence is broken only by the song of cicadas in the surrounding mangroves and the steady flutter of kayak paddles dipping in the water. Three pelicans fly in unison overhead, while great egrets and great blue herons are spotted in the mangroves.
At one point, almost on cue, a family of jack fish darts across the surface of the water right in front of the kayakers. Later on the way back, after a nature walk on a small spoil island, some of the kayakers get to see a manatee as it comes up for air with a loud “swooshing” sound.
Paddling back, Joanie Mazurek says the stay at the resort was perfect for their Pennsylvania family because it offered outdoor adventures to satisfy her 13-year-old daughter Stephanie, but also enough games and competitions to occupy her active 10-year-old daughter, Alyssa, a passenger in a tandem kayak with her father.
“It’s nice because everything is right there,” Joanie says.
On the drive back to the resort in the van, guests plan out the rest of the day.
For Mindy Klein, a 34-year-old school teacher from Maryland, the resort was a great choice for the annual family vacation. They usually go to Disney World, but felt the parks would be more challenging with a 4-month-old baby, along with their 2-year-old daughter. At the resort, her husband and children can relax with her parents while she goes on excursions such as the kayaking trip with her brother, Chris Glass, and his girlfriend, who have already done the night turtle walk – an experience Chris declares “amazing.”
“They have the chair massage,” Mindy now says to her brother, an architect who flew in from England for the vacation, about what is next on the day’s agenda. “I think I might do that.”
He replies: “I’m thinking more like cocktails on the green.”
If you go…
The Vero Beach Disney Resort is in Central Florida on the Atlantic Ocean about two hours southeast of Orlando. The resort offers nature adventures, a bevy of activities for the kids as well as spas and oceanfront dining. Rooms range from beach cottages with oceanfront balconies and full kitchens with space to sleep up to 12 people; to deluxe villas with kitchens; to Inn studios with kitchenettes and ocean or garden views. For more information, visit www.disneybeachresorts.com.