Visiting the Marine Science Center
Author: Barbara Mattiace
Just south of Daytona Beach, in Ponce Inlet Florida, is a fantastic facility called the “Marine Science Center”. It is run by the County of Volusia.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Chad Macfie, who has been with the center for 16 years and has been the manager for 3 years. Chad is a graduate of the University of Central Florida. He has worked with their ichthyology lab, studying, and identifying shark species from the North Carolina Coast, all the way down to the southern parts of Florida. Chad was part of a team which was instrumental is identifying and studying hundreds of different species of and sharks along the Eastern coast of the United States. He is now the leader of a team which provides incredible learning opportunities for people who want to protect our local wildlife and their environment.
The Marine Science Center is not only an educational and research center, but also a rescue and rehabilitation center for turtles and sea birds as well.
The MSC offers classes to all ages, from the very young to adults. Throughout the day the public can observe several presentations. You can learn about the Raptors or sea birds that come to the center. There is even a beautiful pair of American Bald Eagles, Liberty and Freedom, who are permanent residents of the facility. Due to injuries, they cannot be returned to the wild. Many birds such as owls, hawks, pelicans, swallow-tailed kites, sea gulls and a very noisy duck just to name a few, arrive injured or sick and are treated and rehabilitated. The goal is to be able to release them back into the wild. Before they can be released, they must pass what is known as “Flight School”. Birds must show they are able to fly and hunt to insure a successful life in the wild.
There are also several snakes and tortoises who are “Animal Ambassadors” who help to teach the public ways to deal with and protect these types of reptiles. I had the pleasure of meeting a permanent celebrity named “Winky”. He is a Gopher tortoise which cannot be released back into the wild. His shell has a deformity which keeps him from pulling back into his shell. Because of this deformity, he is not able to protect himself from predators. He seems to be a very spoiled resident.
The center is also home to several large exhibits, which allow you get up close and personal with areas you may not normally be able to experience. A mangrove exhibit highlights this very important area of our coastline. Mangroves are like nurseries for many fish and bird species. It is a safe place for baby animals to grow, until they are ready to make it out in the wild.
A freshwater reef and saltwater reef, which have beautiful live corals and seagrass beds, are also some of the many exhibits visitors can learn about. My favorite area was the touch tank. They have cownose rays, an Atlantic stingray and a couple of Bamboo sharks. Every 4-6 weeks the Rays are treated to “Manicure Monday”! Because they have a barb on their tails that can poke you and be very painful, they have their barbs trimmed. It’s not painful at all. As a matter of fact, it’s just like when you clip your fingernails. There are several feedings a day, which can be observed. Those cownose rays get very excited about their groceries! Another favorite of mine is the Seahorse exhibit. I love the way they curl their tails around coral branches to hold on. They even wrap their tails around each other, as if they were holding hands. Believe it or not, it is the male Seahorse that has the babies not the female! There are many other exhibits and new exhibits are now being added to educate guests on these incredible ecosystems.
Rescue and Rehabilitation
When a sick or injured bird or turtle is found, both Volusia County Beach Patrol and FWC work to bring the animal to the Marine Science Center for treatment. On an average 1,100 birds and 175 turtles are treated here every year. This year alone over 200 turtles have been treated. Loggerhead and Green Sea turtles are the most common species, but Hawksbill and Kemp’s Ridley are also treated here. Due to their size, Leatherback turtles are taken to facilities with larger holding tanks. The main goal is to treat and release them back into the wild once they are stable and able to take care of themselves.
Once an animal is brought into the center, it is evaluated by a veterinarian or medical professional. If they are sick, labs are done to determine if the illness is caused by parasites, infection, or anything else that can make them ill. They can also perform digital X-Rays, ultrasound, and endoscopy procedure to help diagnose. They are then stabilized and given an I.V or glucose, whatever is necessary. Many animals come in “chronically debilitated”. They may be sick or lethargic from one issue and because of it a second cause of illness can occur. For instance, if they have parasites or an infection, they may not be able to swim fast enough to get out of the way of an oncoming boat and are then injured by the boat. Determining the main cause of illness is very important for a successful treatment.
Another cause of injury/illness is the ingestion of plastics. Chad informs me this is extremely dangerous to all animals. Fishing line, plastic bags any kind of plastic can cause the animal to become impacted. In other words, they are unable to use the bathroom and become very sick. Sea turtles can have a condition called “Bubble Butt”. When they ingest something which they can’t pass, they get air stuck in their intestines. This causes their tail area to float on the surface making it hard for them to raise their heads above the surface to breath. Birds and turtles can also become entangled in fishing lines and nets causing them to be unable to swim, hunt or fly.
Once the reason for illness or type of injury is determined, the staff members get to work to treat the animal. The animal may just need rest and antibiotics or fluids before they can be released. Sea turtles may need to have barnacles removed from their shells. Barnacles are an indicator that a turtle may not be healthy. Because they can’t swim very well, they are unable to scrape off the barnacles. In some cases, surgery may need to be performed. The facility has highly trained veterinarians that can perform several different surgeries.
The type of rehab needed is different for each case. When it comes to the sea turtles, there are large holding tanks where water is circulated. There is an observation platform above the tanks that you can see the turtles as they progress. Each tank has its own filtration system. They use a product called Instant Ocean to create a water environment that is like the one they were already living in just much cleaner.
Their progress is closely monitored by the staff and volunteers. I learned one-way visitors know if a turtle is progressing is by observing how much water is in their tank. Turtles breathe air and must come to the surface to take in air. To do this, they swim to the surface and peek their heads above the water while they take in a gulp of air. Enough water is added to the tank, gradually, so staff can see if the turtle is able to perform this job of breathing and floating at the same time. The more water…the closer to release time!
The center also has an area for the babies!! There are many reasons hatchlings are brought in. Mother sea turtles lay their eggs in almost the same spot every year. If another female turtle should lay her eggs in that spot beforehand, the second mother may accidentally uncover the nest while digging her own. In this case, eggs are brought in until they hatch and are released when the time is right. Of the nearly 200 eggs laid in one nest, only about 10% survive each year. Another reason baby sea turtles come to the center is because they may have washed back up onto the shore due to rough seas. These are called “washbacks”. They are given time to grow and become stronger so they can be released.
I also learned the temperature of the sand determines the sex of the hatchlings. “Hot Chicks and Cool Dudes” I’m told is the best way to remember that the warmer the sand temperature the more likely the hatchlings will be female.
There is a wonderful group of people called the “Turtle Patrol”. Their job is to go out to the beaches early in morning and look for new sea turtle nests which have been laid the night before. They will mark each nest with four wooden posts and place a colored ribbon around it.
There is even and area where tortoises, there for treatment, have a land tent where they can enjoy life under a shaded tree to get vitamin D from the sun. Tortoises need this to grow healthy bones. It’s almost like they have their own campground!
Before animals can be released a type of identification is assigned to them. Birds receive a leg band. Turtles and tortoises get a microchip (like your dog or cat has) or a flipper tag. These identification devices allow us to know their medical history or situation if they need help again. The FWC does a thorough examination of each animal to make sure they will have a healthy life in the wild before they can be released.
When I asked Chad, what kids today can do to help protect wildlife, he felt that it was very important to follow you passion. Find out what interests you and learn about it. He urges kids to stay outside and observe the animals around them. Even purchasing a field guide and a pair of binoculars to be able to identify and observe different species of animals. He feels it is important to be a leader when it comes to conservations and protecting wildlife. You can do this by educating others, sharing information with your friends, classmates, or family members. It is important to learn as much as you can to protect wildlife.
No matter where you are in the world, you can enjoy and learn from The Marine Science Center. They have a great WEBSITE with a lot of useful information and an events page. You can even keep up with the progress of some of the patients! Their FB page is “Friends of the Marine Science Center”. They also offer virtual classes and have a YouTube channel with a lot of great educational videos. Visit them at “Marine Science Center Channel” on YouTube.
A big Thank You also goes out to Chrissy and Caroline for giving me such a wonderful tour of the facility and providing me with so much information on the amazing things they do there! Their enthusiasm and passion is contagious. There is so much more to share about this fascinating place, but you are just going to have to check it out for yourself. Please visit them in person or online.