Kayaking in the Mosquito Lagoon on a moonless summer night reveals blazing stars and comets — not in the sky but in waters thick with "bioluminescent" plankton.
When mullet jump out of the water, they look like rockets shooting off. Though the mullet themselves aren't that visible, they churn up a trail of liquid pyrotechnics, and their splashdowns trigger more sprays of light from the jostled plankton.
It's a startling and compelling display. And it could play a role in shoring up Brevard County's economy as thousands of better-paying jobs and a reliable stream of tourism vanished with last month's retirement of the space-shuttle program.
"We have to think along those lines," said Elisabeth Mahan, co-owner with her husband of A Day Away Kayak Tours. "There's no other option on the plate."
North Brevard County has its popular Cocoa Beach, cruise ships that dock at Port Canaveral and other seaside attractions.
Now county, city and chamber-of-commerce leaders are ramping up programs and marketing to capitalize on tourism lured by the attractions of nature, including roseate spoonbills at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, redfish in the Indian River and sunrises at Canaveral National Seashore.
Mahan thinks the timing to push eco-tourism is right, as the nation has a growing appetite for the outdoors. In her sixth year of business, the number of customers has increased by an average of more than 30 percent annually and topped 7,000 last year.
"If you had tried this 15 years ago, it wouldn't go. It wasn't in the front of the American mind-set," Mahan said. "Now we live in such an electronic age, sitting in front of computers for hours. People are sick of the electronics, sick of concrete, and outdoor eco-recreation has become cool."
Eco-tourism is definitely not passive, air-conditioned and bugless, especially at the aptly named Mosquito Lagoon.
It's also not always cooperative; the bioluminescent plankton are best during the summer, peaking in August but sometimes taking a night off. Like fireflies, the tiny organisms naturally secrete chemicals that mix and create light.
Yet on a on a recent muggy evening, 20 kayakers paying the adult price of $34 and dousing themselves with bug spray happily paddled out at sunset to hunt for bioluminescent hot spots.
Their no-pain, no-gain attitude is common.
Marcia Gaedcke, president of the Titusville Area Chamber of Commerce, recently joined a Canaveral National Seashore nighttime sea-turtle-nesting tour, routinely booked to capacity far in advance.
"To be honest, it was almost miserable at the start," Gaedcke said of the mosquitoes and heat.
But those irritations were forgotten when aloggerhead turtle climbed out of the surf, dug a hole, laid 100 eggs and returned to the sea.
"Oh, my gosh, how cool is that?" Gaedcke said. "It was such an experience."
In short, Brevard leaders say they are beginning to better appreciate a notion counterintuitive to longtime residents that people will come and spend money for adventure not in spite of having to sweat and swat bugs but because they get to.
"We are a destination, and our challenge is to starting acting like a destination," Gaedcke said.
Laurilee Thompson, owner of Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant in Titusville and outspoken advocate for eco-tourism, said space shuttles were a "free gift" to north Brevard's economy.
"Having the shuttle launches guaranteed that no matter what happened, we wouldn't have to spend a dime on marketing, and we would still fill up the hotels," Thompson said.
But when the shuttle program ended in July with the final Atlantis mission, much of that gift was taken away. Tourism spending for launches and the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center has been nearly $50 million annually, according the Space Coast Office of Tourism.
Now, more marketing of eco-tourism is becoming evident in very different ways. For starters, the newly rebuilt and much taller Max Brewer Bridge at the edge of Titusville is getting praise as a gateway and an awesome place to view Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is stirring excitement by proposing to finally open the St. Johns National Wildlife Refuge to the public, which could link other public lands into a huge conservation tract and bird-watching mecca along the St. Johns River.
The emerging St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop, a bike trail of more than 250 miles through five counties, originally was planned to travel only a few miles into north Brevard County.
"When we saw that, we said the southern end of the loop needs to run through a city, and it needs to be Titusville," Titusville Mayor Jim Tulley said. "We worked hard and got the route changed so that Titusville is part of the loop."
Even folks who long made their living with the space program are trying to find a new way with the eco-tourism push.
Dean Pettit was laid off two weeks ago after 31 years at Kennedy Space Center. At 52, he immediately went full time managing a website he created, spacecoastoutdoors.net, as a guide to the best- and least-known nature recreation.
"Titusville has relied for too long on the space center," said Pettit, who grew up fishing and boating in Brevard. "If I can help bring diversity to our economy, I think that's a good thing even when NASA starts up again."
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