Friday, March 2, 2018

Local Review: Sandoway Discovery Center

The Sandoway Discovery Center, also known locally as Sandoway House, is a historical building tucked away in Delray Beach. Built in 1936, the facility has transformed from a sleepy depression era home meant for retirement, to an amazing nature center that provides a variety of programs ranging from tales of history to addressing modern environmental issues. The facility has been open to the public for 20 years, and yet remains like so many other places in South Florida, practically undiscovered.
Whether looking for a low-cost way to spend time with small children, or interested in delving into the history of the area, Sandoway Discovery Center is a fantastic place to visit each year. The exhibits and programs are always rotating, meaning that while history may not change, the things to do on site most certainly evolve. This was the location of my son’s first beach cleanup, and taking him to the facility afterwards was a reward for both of us.
I have watched Sandoway grow and face challenges ranging from someone literally driving a vehicle through the wall and into the historic structure, to severe power outages during and after Hurricane Irma. The staff is dedicated to what they do and above all else – the volunteers and staff there seem genuinely happy; this is a key component to the long-term success for a small non-profit. For anyone who likes to visit smaller facilities that ‘the locals know’ and support grass roots organizations with boots on the ground, then this is a great place.

Visiting a facility that expands and grows is great, and watching your local nature center sprout new wings to accommodate programs is no small feat. However, Sandoway has a unique situation – being a historical building found officially on the lists for Delray, the state of Florida, and the National Historical Registries, they are incapable of physically altering the building for expansion and must work within the given walls.  This challenge means the staff and facility are particularly creative with the exhibits and programming.
So, let’s chat about those awesome exhibits. The unassuming entrance to the home is a screened in deck called the Discovery Porch where they house some cool locals and my personal favorites – the turtles. A box turtle, gopher tortoise and freshwater turtles are flanked by Mr. Crystal, the blue and gold macaw. Parrots, and macaws in particular, remain my personal adversaries dating back to my days as a zookeeper and this bird is no different. Do me a favor and never reach over and try to pet an animal on display anywhere you go, ok? Consider that my public service announcement for the day.

Once inside, for a paltry fee, kids and adults alike can enjoy a variety of live animal and interactive exhibits. After giving Mr. Crystal his respectful space, guests are rewarded with opportunities to touch a variety of invertebrates with the guidance of staff or volunteers. Saltwater fish tanks and reptilian displays abound before venturing toward the back of the facility. The Microscope Room is a great space for those kids who get bored with coloring but aren’t big enough to fully appreciate the historical exhibits. My 8-yr old found this a space of great discovery while looking at – SAND. Yes, this place got my Minecraft-loving, Lego building, taekwondo kicking kid intrigued with sand.

Currently, the rotating display area is showing off some unique images and items from the Florida Surfing Museum’s collection. In the past I have seen this space used for showing off one of the largest shark jaw exhibits and other traveling displays as well, making return visits particularly rewarding because you can actually see something new and different every time. Coming up this summer, from June - August, the main exhibit room will be transformed by an array of spectacular shark jaws on display.
Inspired by the photos!

Before heading outside to catch the live stingray touch tank, be sure to run upstairs (or ask for assistance using the antique elevator) and check out the Templeton Shell Gallery. A staple of the facility for many years, this is a great way to satisfy the inner shell nerd that always wondered which strange seashells are buried in the shoebox collection back home. Also, upstairs is a great area for smaller kids to enjoy fun books, coloring and activity station. While on the second level be sure to venture outside, yes OUTSIDE, onto the observation deck. Binoculars are provided, but feel free to enjoy the salty breeze and a spectacular view of the ocean from across Ocean Blvd. I cannot skip the Nocturnal Room either, but it is easy to pass by as the animals in this room are, well, nocturnal. The screech owl might be camouflaged or the opossum taking a nap, but it is still a great use of space and see some cool native animals. I still do not know how staff keeps the small room from smelling a bit ‘off’ considering the inhabitants, but kudos to them!

There is no way one can visit Sandoway, though, and not see the sharks. Everyday, staff hosts an informative yet informally comfortable talk about sharks and stingrays, and conducts a public feeding demonstration with each. The large saltwater swimming pool is one of my favorite features that embodies both the history and the future of the Discovery Center. Back when the house was first built, getting enough freshwater at once to fill a swimming pool was impractical and many historic places upgraded their pools to freshwater systems later but this one remained – which is why you see steps at one end of the pool. No, this is not an invitation to go in, and the public do not feed the large nurse sharks living alongside a variety of other fish in the retrofitted tank. Be sure to ask which one is “Mr. Bubbles” before you leave!

Living in south Florida leaves one quite spoiled on outdoor activities year-round, but I have found this lovely little place to always be welcoming regardless of the beach conditions. Whether at the fossil dig, touching stingrays, or simply enjoying the sea stars stuck to the tank walls, Sandoway Discovery Center is truly a local treasure for all ages. Be sure to add it to your “Fun Things to Do” list!

and, remember to just keep swimming-


For more information on visiting Sandoway Discovery Center, check out their website:

And to learn more about the Florida Surfing Museum, visit:

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