Manatee haven Fort Pierce was historic harbor for Navy SEALs

FORT PIERCE, Fla. — This stretch of the Florida Atlantic coast is frequented by the delightful —
and endangered — manatee, or sea cow. But 75 years ago, the biggest presence on the beaches of Fort
Pierce were Navy SEALs — or, actually, their forerunners.

During World War II, the beach at what is now Fort Pierce Inlet State Park was used as a
training ground for the amphibious forces and naval demolition crews that would eventually help win
the war and become known as SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) special-warfare units.

The troops are long gone, replaced by sun- and surf-loving tourists and the locals who have
helped the town grow from a sleepy, isolated village to a port city of 44,000. Happily, the
manatees are still around.

The memory of days gone by, though, is preserved at several sites, including the National Navy
SEAL Museum.

The town is built upon the Indian River, the 120-mile stretch of brackish, mangrove-lined water
separating a long chain of barrier islands from the Florida mainland. The river comprises a length
of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, where small (and some not-so-small) pleasure boats and ships
can navigate relatively peaceful waters.

The river harbors a wide variety of life — one of the big draws for visitors.

At the Manatee Observation and Education Center, guests can learn about the gentle aquatic
mammal whose closest living relative is the elephant. The center is also one of several places to
book a wildlife boat tour of the Indian River.

The St. Lucie County Aquarium on Hutchinson Island offers more information on the ecosystems of
the Indian River Lagoon, said to be one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in North
America. The museum’s Smithsonian Marine Ecosystems Exhibit offers glances at the diverse habitats
in the lagoon and just offshore, including seagrass beds, mangrove swamps and coral reefs.

Next door to the aquarium is the St. Lucie County Regional History Center, with stories dating
back to the aboriginal Ais Indians and the Spanish treasure hunters who encountered them in the
16th century.

I stayed not far from the museums on Hutchinson Island, a long barrier island just a short
bridge away from downtown Fort Pierce. The island offers plenty of parks and beaches as well as
many hotels, resorts, restaurants and (human) watering holes along Florida A1A, the legendary motor
route that hugs the ocean up and down the Florida coast.

From my hotel near Jetty Park I could walk to and from an evening of beachfront dining, drinks
and dancing.

Hutchinson Island is actually cut in two by the Fort Pierce Inlet, a man-made channel dug in the
early 20th century to give access to the river from the Atlantic Ocean and allow the city to build
a port.

North Hutchinson Island is the site of Fort Pierce Inlet State Park and the Navy SEAL

Beaches line the coast, but the state park offers a bit of isolation, some great picnicking and
hiking sites, and its own long stretch of sand.

A popular attraction, the SEAL museum is undergoing a multimillion-dollar expansion. Visitors
will learn the history of Naval Special Warfare, beginning with the exhibit “Fort Pierce:
Birthplace of the Underwater Warrior.”

Amphibious teams and naval demolition units trained on the beaches in preparation for encounters
such as the D-Day landings in Normandy and the island-to-island combat in the Pacific during World
War II, and the town is rightly proud of that heritage.

But visitors will also see Naval Special Warfare gear, boats and other vehicles in use up to the
present day, including the high-tech Mark V Special Operations Craft. Guests can watch a video
showing the boat’s incredible speed and maneuverability while sitting in the very seats once used
by a SEAL crew during special warfare operations.

Other displays include mock-ups used to train for ocean recovery of Apollo space capsules and a
scale model of the compound in which Osama bin Laden was killed by a team of Navy SEALs.

A more peaceful note is struck at the nearby Heathcote Botanical Gardens, a verdant sanctuary
with tranquil, palm-lined walking trails and what is said to be the largest public collection of
tropical bonsai in the world, with about 100 trees on permanent display.

This part of Florida has only one winery, but, being the traveler that I am, I found it, just a
few miles into the vast agricultural region outside Fort Pierce. Endless Summer Vineyard
Winery has a surfboard and tiki theme, of course. It also offers estate-grown wine made from
muscadine grapes, which tolerate the almost-tropic climate.

Picky oenophiles might find the wines too sweet. I prefer drier, myself. But the semi-dry white
called Beach Nut seemed mighty tasty, especially as I sipped the cool liquid on the winery’s ample
shaded front porch and watched the fluffy Florida clouds scudding across the cerulean sky.

Although visitors will undoubtedly spend a lot of time at the beach or on the lagoon, historic
downtown Fort Pierce is worth exploring, too. The town has some great old buildings, including the
art deco 1925 Arcade Building and the 1882 P.P. Cobb building, once the site of a general store and
still home to several commercial establishments.

And those who are in town on a Saturday morning shouldn’t miss the weekly farmers market, one of
the biggest in Florida.

Although it was drizzling during my visit, the site along the downtown riverfront was packed
with shoppers exploring the dozens of vendor tents filled with fresh produce, baked goods, juices,
candies, crafts, art and more.

The market is so big that a Latin band played at one end and a jazz band at the other with
little acoustical overlap.

It’s a great place to shop for souvenirs — or for lunch. And if you’re lucky, you just might see
a manatee cruising by just off the seawall.


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