Florida’s 1,350 miles of coastline—second in the United States in length only to Alaska—are well-known and widely celebrated. Throughout the state, beaches and coastal areas serve as recreational centers, economic drivers and sources of local pride.
But from the northern Gulf of Mexico south to the Florida Keys and all along the Atlantic, the coastline is only the beginning of Florida’s relationship with the water. There are an additional 7,000 miles of tidal areas adjacent to those coastlines.
Along the shorelines—beneath the surf and throughout these tidal areas—are breeding grounds, nurseries and habitats critical to sustaining the healthy beaches and marine life so many enjoy, and many others depend upon for livelihoods.
Around the state, marine science centers that focus on the health of Florida’s coastal areas and the plants and animals that inhabit them are staffed by committed scientists and volunteers who bring on-the-ground local solutions to global problems. They spend their days cultivating plants, recycling resources, caring for injured animals and educating visitors.
Restoration From the Bottom Up
Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center—a 57-acre marine life nature center on Hutchinson Island—is in Stuart between the Indian River and the Atlantic Ocean. It welcomes thousands of visitors each month. Some are tourists and some are students on field trips.
To fulfill its mission of inspiring environmental stewardship of Florida’s coastal ecosystems, the center goes beyond educational programs and interactive exhibits on its property. Its staff and a legion of volunteers are developing and implementing programs below the surface of local waters that reach far and wide.
“We’re not just an education facility,” says Michelle Byriel, the center’s community outreach and event coordinator. “We’re involved in a lot of advocacy, and we’re involved in a lot of restoration.”
Seagrass and oyster restoration are two areas of emphasis.
“Seagrasses are depleting,” Michelle says, noting sea turtles and other animals count on them for food. “They are a very important nursery for other marine life.”
The center addresses seagrass loss through its Florida Oceanographic Seagrass Training, Education and Restoration program, based in the center’s Seagrass Research and Restoration Nursery. Its goal is to restore seagrass populations affected by freshwater discharge and algal blooms in the estuary.
Known as the FOSTER program, it relies on community-based restoration efforts. That means putting dozens of volunteers to work collecting stranded seagrass fragments that have washed ashore. Fragments are brought back to the nursery, replanted and nurtured. After sufficient growth, grasses are gathered into planting units and transplanted into the Indian River Lagoon.
In time, Michelle notes, these grasses will once again become part of the lush meadows of local estuarine waters.
The program began in 2016, with more than 350 square feet of water bottom restored that year. In 2021, volunteers planted 16,000 seagrass shoots in an area covering more than 430 square feet.
Oyster restoration efforts also have become a community affair for the center, its volunteers and local businesses.
Oysters are a keystone species in the Indian River Lagoon. Keystone species are organisms that help define an entire ecosystem, providing specific, critical functions.
Oysters filter nutrients and particles from the water column and provide food for shorebirds and marine animals. Oyster reefs are habitat for numerous fish and marine invertebrates and break up wave energy that would otherwise contribute to shoreline erosion.
Unfortunately, oyster health is declining worldwide. It is estimated oyster populations have been reduced by 85% globally.
In Martin County, the center’s Florida Oceanographic Oyster Restoration program actively engages the public in restoring oyster reef habitat.
“One oyster filters 50 gallons of water a day,” Michelle says.
The FLOOR program aims to create a new layer of attachment for oysters, replenishing the oyster population and stemming the financial decline she says affects the Martin County economy.
Oyster shells are collected weekly from a dozen local restaurants, then bagged by volunteers. Oyster habitat is restored by constructing reefs with the bagged shells, which are considered the most ideal substrate for baby oysters—or spat—to grow.
“By placing shell recycled from restaurants on the estuary floor, we are jump-starting the process of creating a new oyster reef, while at the same time saving this precious resource from the landfill,” program materials state.
Center staff and volunteers have restored nearly 60,000 square feet of oyster reefs in the St. Lucie Estuary and Indian River Lagoon.
Rehabilitation for Birds and Turtles
To the north in Volusia County, rehabilitation is a priority at Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet. MSC plays an important role in rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing several species of sea turtles and seabirds—many of which are endangered.
The environmental learning center focuses on education and conservation of Volusia County’s most fragile marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Combining the gallery with two rehabilitation hospitals allows the center to teach visitors of all ages about living in harmony with the environment and promoting practices that support environmental stewardship.
Since its opening in 2002, more than 25,000 sea turtles and 19,000 seabirds have been admitted into MSC’s rehabilitation programs. They receive full diagnostic exams, including X-rays, ultrasounds and endoscopies using the center’s state-of-the-art equipment. Veterinarians and other trained staff carry out surgical procedures and medical treatment.
“When turtles are brought in, they go to our dry dock,” where they are examined and a treatment plan formed, says Education Coordinator Shell Webster. “Then they are moved to kiddie pools, so they can breathe air easily.”
They progress to larger pools as they move through rehab.
Guests can get a glimpse of sick and injured sea turtles and hatchlings in eight pools from the Turtle Terrace. Patients are returned to their natural habitat when fully recovered.
MSC also treats other injured native, non-pet reptiles, such as freshwater turtles, tortoises, box turtles and even snakes.
Mary Keller Seabird Rehabilitation Sanctuary is part of MSC. The fully functional animal hospital and its avian rehab specialists have treated nearly 20,000 birds from more than 200 species since its opening in 2004.
While all fully recovered birds are released to their natural habitat, permanently impaired birds have a home at the center and can be viewed along a boardwalk in the guest viewing area.
Two resident birds popular with visitors are bald eagles Liberty and Freedom. They are joined by neighboring hawks, pelicans, owls and gulls, all now considered animal ambassadors as part of the center’s educational programs.
Educating Through Animal Encounters
In Fort Walton Beach on the northern Gulf Coast, Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park has been a part of the landscape for decades, opening its doors in 1955. Combining a tourist attraction marine center with a research center was a novel idea, started by a team of 15 scientists and 50 residents.
It is still entertaining and educating the public today. Dolphin shows have been a mainstay at Gulfarium since its opening.
“Our main dolphin habitat was one of the first of its kind and has stood proud for over 65 years,” says Will Merrill III, president of Gulfarium. “A pioneering habitat in the 1950s, built with robust battleship steel, it has allowed us to provide dolphins the top-notch animal welfare that we offer all of our resident animals. Today, we are excited to build expanded habitats fully suited to an animal’s long-term needs through all stages of their lives.”
Dolphin Oasis is scheduled to open in spring of 2023. It will include three interconnected habitats—for encounters, exhibits and presentations—each designed with animal welfare, the guest experience and conservation education in mind. Together, they will hold more than 1 million gallons of Gulf saltwater.
The encounter habitat will provide improved interaction opportunities for guests of all ages to play and learn through hands-on experiences with resident dolphins.
Dolphins will be able to move through different areas of the Oasis, which will include areas for social groupings, care specialist interactions, enrichment, and a large maternity suite and nursery for mothers and calves.
Gulfarium’s turtle rescue and rehabilitation and its marine research team continues. The Conserve, Act, Rehabilitate and Educate Center was developed in 2015 as an extension of the park’s ongoing sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation efforts. Through the years, C.A.R.E. staff and volunteers have rescued and released hundreds of sea turtles along the Gulf Coast.
The facility also contributes to furthering the knowledge about the animals it cares for through research and conservation projects. Gulfarium staff conducts and supports numerous scientific projects related to marine mammals, providing information that may be important to the conservation of species, habitats and biodiversity in the wild, as well as improving husbandry for animals in zoological parks and aquariums.
“We may have opened our doors more than 65 years ago, but our story is just beginning,” says Patrick Berry, Gulfarium’s senior vice president, pointing to both the new exhibit and the facility’s new and expanding conservation and research efforts.
That is a recurring theme throughout Florida’s marine centers. Each is finding ways to do its part to support the local environment, contribute to the sustainability of natural resources and promote good stewardship among local volunteers and thousands of visitors each year.