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Gumbo Limbo, Sea Turtle Saviors

Monique Boileau

Amid the high rises and blaring sounds of South Florida traffic lies a 20-acre stretch of protected barrier island where Florida's natural habitat has been left nearly untouched. Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, located along Boca Raton’s North Ocean Boulevard, serves as a beacon for environmental education, research and conversation.

Gumbo Limbo Nature Center - Boca Raton - sea turtle rehabilitation, education, research and conservation

   Tucked into the natural surroundings sits the Environmental Complex, an indoor museum with exhibits, fish tanks and a gift shop. Outdoors, several large tanks for fish, turtles and other sea life dominate visitors’ attention. A boardwalk trail makes its way through the trees to a 40-foot observation tower that gives visitors a bird's-eye view of the surrounding hardwood hammock, the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean. The preservation of the Gumbo Limbo property, led by the City of Boca Raton, has allowed a rare ecosystem to thrive among encroaching habitat destruction.

   "It might be surrounded by condos, but it's a little piece of what Florida once was," says manager Stefanie Ouellette. "We want visitors to connect with nature in some way, whether it's with a snail, a fox or a turtle. Nature does not stand alone."

Gumbo Limbo Nature Center - visitor pavilion with saltwater tanks depicting differewnt ecosystems

Within Gumbo Limbo’s pavilion, the center maintains four saltwater tanks, each representing one of South Florida’s unique marine environments: a coastal mangrove area; nearshore reefs; offshore tropical reefs; and an artificial/shipwreck reef.

 

   The center's recently added sea tanks and sea turtle rehabilitation facility draw the most visitors, with more than 100,000 guests exploring the complex each year. Inside the four saltwater tanks are well-executed miniatures of the different marine ecosystems in South Florida. Each tank teems with life, with a continued dedication to expand the animal populations in the tanks over time.

   The recently reopened sea turtle rehabilitation facility has already treated and released more than 200 turtles, many of which were treated for boating-related accidents or injuries sustained due to pollution. Not just a rehab center for the injured and ill, the center is also one of just four facilities in Florida that treats sea turtles with fibropapilloma tumors. A product of pollution, fibropapillomatosis mainly affects green turtles but has also been reported on loggerheads, Kemp’s ridleys and Olive ridleys, presenting as benign tumors on soft tissue—the flippers, the neck and around the eyes and mouth. These tumors can inhibit a turtle’s ability to dive, swim, eat and see, making them deadly when not treated and removed. If the tumors metastasize internally, little recourse can be done and the turtle must be euthanized. As of now, 12 turtles have been treated and released for fibropapillmatosis at Gumbo Limbo. Guests are encouraged to visit the center to learn why the turtles are in need of medical care and what they can do to prevent future harm to turtle populations. 

Gumbo Limbo Nature Center - Florida Atlantic University’s Department of Biological Sciences - resesrch and conservation efforts

Florida Atlantic University’s biological sciences department maintains a research facility at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. Some of the projects underway, which are accessible to the public through a viewing gallery and Q&As with researchers, include: gender-ration hatchlings, swimming mechanics and anatomy; sea turtle behavior as affected by lighting and within their natural habitat; and the effects of high salt levels in seagrasses and in the sensory capabilities of sharks and rays.

 

   Education is the center's main focus. More than 10,000 students are instructed in coastal and marine ecology every year, and the educational programs are constructed to meet the Sunshine State Standards requirement for science education. The outdoor classroom onsite is used in demonstrations for students and the public. Guests may sign up and participate in a number of free programs and activities, including the Hammock Hike, a guided walking tour held every Tuesday and Wednesday at 10 a.m. Sea turtle feedings are also free to be viewed by the public every day, between 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.

Gumbo Limbo Nature Center - Boca Raton - hardwood hammock - boardwalk tours - observation tower

A quarter-mile boardwalk meanders through Gumbo Limbo’s hardwood hammock, a rare Florida ecosystem. The trail includes 2,000-year-old middens—essentially landfills from Florida’s indigenous ancestors—and a 40-foot tall observation tower.

   Among Gumbo Limbo’s many responsibilities, monitoring Boca Raton’s five miles of beaches for nesting and hatching turtle is a nightly occurrence. This involves marking nests, recording data (such as turtle species, false crawl or successful nesting, and nest location), monitoring the site until hatching, then excavating the nest three days later, counting unhatched eggs and collecting the live turtles for the Hatchling Release Program, are all part of the job. This helps add to the scientific sea turtle datasets for the state, leading to a better understanding of the local and statewide populations.

   This summer, the center's popular Turtle Walk programs will give patrons the opportunity to see a nesting turtle and subsequent hatchings, proliferating the center’s mission of education. The walks give guests the opportunity to see a mother turtle lay her eggs before she makes her way back into the ocean in June and July. Come late July through mid-September, the turtle walks turn to the babies with the Hatchling Release Program. The center releases baby sea turtles collected from exhausted nests, giving walkers a chance to watch baby sea turtles scurry into the ocean once the sun descends and moon rises. To date (June 18, 2013), 12 leatherback, 299 loggerhead and 26 green turtles have nested within Boca Raton’s five miles of beaches.

  • Remaining dates for Turtle Walks are as follows: June 18-20, 25-27; July 2-3, 9-11 from 9-11 p.m.
  • Hatchling Release Dates are as follows, tickets go on sale July 20: July 22-25, 29-31, August 1, 5-8, 12-15 from 8-9:30 p.m.; August 19-22, 26-29, September 3-5, 9 to noon from 7:30-9 p.m.
  • Tickets cost $17 per person ($10 for members) and must be purchased in advance at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center or by calling 561-544-8608.
Sea turtle rehabiltation tanks - Gumbo Limbo Nature Center

On January 1, 2012, Gumbo Limbo was certified by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as a licensed sea turtle rehabilitation center. Since then, the rehabilitation center has treated and released more than 200 sea turtles from all over the state.

 

sea turtle conservation and educational exhibits - Gumbo Limbo Nature Center

Gumbo Limbo’s Nature Center offers exhibits designed to educate locals and visitors about Florida’s ecosystems, the flora and fauna inhabitants, and conservation and preservation efforts people can do at home.

 

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