TYBEE ISLAND MARINE SCIENCE CENTER
People either lean in and listen intently to the spiel or shift around distractedly, trying to soak everything in at once, usually after peeking into the gallery; they dish out 5 dollars and enter.
The first thing they encounter, walking into the coastal gallery, is a large plastic pillar filled with water, trash floating throughout its column, a marine debris display recognizing the deficit of the ocean’s health under the pressures of human practices. Hanging above that, an even more specific message, a clear plastic sphere filled with 30,000 cigarette butts, all from a day’s beach cleanup on the south end of Tybee. This is when it becomes clear that this pint-sized center is a voice for the ecosystems of coastal Georgia, it is small but mighty in its respect and stewardship for our local natural habitats.
Farther in, the intimate gallery is decked out with amazing facts, habitats, artifacts and images. One gets to explore and observe the diversity of animals that lie underneath our murky coastal waters. Some come in more acquainted with their species; others are entering into an alien world, seeing them for the first time.
This repurposed police station has been installed with 20+ tanks carrying over 2000 gallons of water that exhibit local fish species and other marine and maritime life. The local community plays an essential role at the science center. The animals and artifacts are collected from surrounding habitats and are donated from multiple sources, from local fisherman to concerned citizens. A collecting permit allows the science center to bring in local species and display them with the purpose of education. After a temporary stay at the center, the animals are released back into their natural habitats. Collection comes from the abundance of habitats interwoven around our small island; marsh, maritime forest, beach, tidal pools, jetties, ocean and some off shore excursions to represent the more biodiverse waters of Grays Reef. The clarity of the tanks really gives a better look into the individual marine communities and the relationships at play in these ecosystems.
The heart of the center is its role in education. I can’t tell you how many times an educator has had the opportunity to introduce a newcomer to a horseshoe crab as a primordial creature that pre-dates the dinosaurs or explained that a sand dollar is a flattened sea urchin very closely related to sea star, as well as how to tell if it is dead or alive. Jellyfish, whelk snails, plankton, gills, gonads... Marine life has the adaptability to take on multitudes of functions, shapes and forms. The importance of us making these connections with other systems of life is essential in enriching our lives and preserving our planet and health. Whether local or visiting, the Tybee Island Marine Science Center is at the forefront in passing on these imperative lessons, reaching over 50,000 people a year through the gallery alone.
This non-profit organization is supported mostly by gift shop sales and program fees; the center is self-sustaining and staffed with a crew of passionate and patient marine biologists and coastal stewards. Most educators on staff come in as seasonal instructors to the center, many a bright eyed post-grad student, with the energy to engage groups of up to 30 elementary kids, bussing in from Chatham County schools for two hour long programs. The science center is a magnet for armadas of girl scouts, visiting family groups, field trippers, nature lovers, etc. Programs include beach walks, sand sifting, seine netting, public walks in the marsh, north beach and south beach. The conversation spans through the impact of industry, geographical character, the untapped brilliance of the golden isles, and the abundance of life in these habitats, its full web of interconnectedness. It is a naturalist nook and a great place for anyone seeking coastal knowledge. The undertaking and importance of the educator’s work here is invaluable and gives the center its vitality.
The place, also, couldn’t work without the blood, sweat and tears from the ladies in the office upstairs, booking the tours and giving clear directions to patrons. It may sound like a breeze but with the growing pains the center has been going through, it is no easy task keeping up with unrehearsed numbers flooding in. Program director, Beth Palmer, keeps the ship tight and makes sure all of the school programs and girl-scout programs are running their course. She is a patient and understanding director, one that will ease up an hour so you can catch a swell. There are also daily gallery programs that include events like sea turtle feedings, behind the scenes tours, and cart programs, all extra activities included in the gallery experience.
The center’s greatest ambassador is a yearling loggerhead sea turtle. A special permit is required to house this endangered animal and the science center is honored with the opportunity to get a new straggler every year. Our current loggerhead, Ike Jr., is to be released in September. Keep your eye on the science center’s Facebook for Ike’s release date. The center is fortunate to have a sponsor for this sea turtle, IKEA, hence the name… The newest hatchling from this season will be Ike the 3rd. Super fresh, Ike tres, was brought in from one of the 24 nests laid on the island this nesting season. The Tybee Sea Turtle Project, yet another project conducted through the science center, had a record breaking year for sea turtle nesting. A straggler is a turtle that was unable to make it out of the nest along with its multitude of sea turtle sibs. This new sea turtle babe will be on display at the science center, an important ambassador and teacher for the health and awareness of its species and other stressed wildlife.
Tybee Island Marine Science Center prides itself in its catch and release methods and it is inspiring to see things come in and then released back out. The curator, Chantal Audran, wears many hats at the science center, keeping a close eye on the animals, mechanics, and water quality, making sure everything is happily humming and flowing smoothly in the gallery and behind the scenes. Her role in the science center is fundamental in husbandry and boils over into education, contributing, with great purpose, in creating a nurturing learning community there.
The next big plan for the center is to relocate and build a new facility on the north end of the island. New look, same great taste. This brand new center will be twice the square footage and more flexible with its displays, being that its first purpose is to be a science center. The director of the marine science center, Maria Procopio, along with the board members that oversee the whole institute, are hard at work. The plans and blueprints have been passed through the city and now it is time to get down and sandy to the ground breaking stages. This process will take no time at all, if you are running on Tybee time.
The growth is promising and one can only hope that places like the science center are becoming more prevalent in our culture and hot spots on our societies radar. One of the main goals of the science center is to connect the individual with the natural communities surrounding them. There is a current of people channeling through and they each get to experience, not only a clear look into Georgia coastal wildlife, but a person on standby happy to engage in a conversation about it. This center is run by a small crew with a big purpose: to cultivate responsible stewardship of coastal Georgia’s natural resources through education, conservation and research. Carry on science center, you are an amazing community, the givers will eventually weed out the takers.
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