Monday, June 25, 2012

Gumbo Limbo Nature Center - Revisited

There are so many local parks and wonderful places to visit on your own or with family.  One place quite near and dear to my heart is the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton, FL.  This FREE facility stays open with support of grants, public donations, the City of Boca Raton, and Florida Atlantic University.  This facility has been around for nearly 30 years as a resource for educational programs, all the while instilling a love for many natural local treasures - sea turtles being perhaps my personal favorite. My history with Gumbo Limbo reaches back into the previous millennium, and I can honestly say it was the catalyst for changing my life.

As a teenager, my mind (as all teenagers do) was set in concrete: I was joining the United States Air Force. Instead of taking art classes or home economics, I attended a technical school and was trained as an aircraft mechanic. I finished entrance exams and a battery of tests. I got my letters of recommendation and worked at a small local airport for a flight school and FBO.  I was a female in a non-traditional field and reasonably good at my job.  But I yearned for the water even more than the sky.

Further back in time, as a child, we traveled to both coasts visiting family, and I shall never forget when I was only 5 years old and saw the ocean for the first time. The Jersey Shore was grey and cold but I believed it to be the most beautiful site on the planet.  I was chased by ridiculously brazen and monstrously huge sea gulls who in the end did, in fact, secure my glazed donut. So yeah, I was both traumatized and simultaneously hooked on the ocean, although less enthusiastic about gulls.

My life slowly unfolded, choices were made, and I landed in south Florida many moons ago.  After about a year of dealing with the culture shock, I took the scenic way home one day and saw the Gumbo Limbo Environmental Complex on Ocean Boulevard; at that moment my new direction in life was set in motion. I walked in just to check the place out and was so inspired that I knew instantly I wanted to volunteer there. Coincidence had me meeting with the volunteer coordinator at the front door, and within a week I was going through my volunteer orientation.  So many volunteers and staff there were in college, that within another week I was enrolling myself in hopes of acquiring that impossible degree in marine biology.  Gumbo Limbo provided mentors, close friends, and field experience that I had never seriously imagined possible. When I try to define "home", Gumbo is still one of the places that comes to mind and I go there even now for inspiration and reflection.

Growth is a part of life, and Gumbo Limbo has never stopped evolving.  The facility has practically been through an overhaul in the past 5 years alone.  Now, I go back and usually take my 3 yr old son to explore.  The first stop out front is the Sea Turtle Garden, where all 7 species of sea turtles are on display as life size replicas. Since of course one should never actually climb on or harass a sea turtle, this is the perfect opportunity to get a "feel" for the scale and presence of these living dinosaurs.  The artist's renditions of these animals is meticulous and anatomically accurate too. My little one was not the only person scaling these sculptures that day, I assure you! It was actually quite tricky to get this photo without showing people all over the place.
The Sea Turtle Garden is a great spot to be a kid again!
Among the major changes going on, Gumbo completely renovated one of the most popular exhibits- the large, open water system aquaria.  These tanks hold thousands of gallons of seawater pumped in directly from the ocean.  The "open system" has water quality literally as good as the ocean's and the drain flows into the intracoastal waterway behind the facility.  It actually improves the water quality in the intracoastal too. This unique snapshot of Floridan ecosystems reaches from the shallow mangrove community to the coral reefs, and examples of these are shown with beautiful style.
The mangrove exhibit is actually 2 separate aquaria (only 1 shown here)
One striking contrast of these new tanks is that they are covered! I recall countless hours sitting under mesh canopies getting drizzled on while speaking with guests determined to squeeze every moment of fun out of their limited vacation time. Both the sun and elements are now removed and the focus is truly on the exhibit itself and the animal ambassador residents.  The deeper tanks actually have two different viewing levels, and we came so early after the re-opening of the exhibits, that we did not get a chance to see the puffer fish and sharks from the upper deck. Just a great excuse to go back soon!

A visit to Gumbo Limbo is incomplete without taking the time to enjoy the historical side of the facility too. My son's personal favorites (this time) included the original cannons and the ship's wheel seen below.
Ready to set sail!
There are so many niches and interesting corners of the Nature Center, that to not explore in all directions is to miss some intimate moment that might stick in your mind.  The butterfly garden is nicely groomed and on the way down a pleasant trail leading to the intracoastal.  The opposite direction lets you roam through the ancient hammock. I can actually call it that accurately since the Indian midden mounds studied on site were dated back over 2,000 years! Take the time to climb the tower and get a view that would make a pelican jealous. Notice how the sounds of humanity fade away and tap into the natural environment without having to watch out for fire ants. There is more to see than what I mentioned here, but I will let you have a few discoveries too.

Above all else, know that every staff member and volunteer, much like myself, are permanently attached to this place. Gumbo Limbo is special to many lovers of nature, and allows for a unique and intimate experience for the general public of all backgrounds and interests.  The people answering the phones, feeding the fish, and providing educational enrichment truly love being there.  It shows.  Gumbo Limbo is not a franchise or a formula, but has grown into a local icon that should definitely be circled when planning your vacation, or even just a weekend.

If you went there as a kid on a school field trip, go back! Enjoy it on your own as a chance to reflect, or take family and rediscover it through their eyes.   As for me, I am always happy to go home and visit.  Besides, it is right next to the beach and you were headed there anyway - right?

For more information on Gumbo Limbo, check out their website

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