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Up close and personal



manatee

The Manatee Observation and Education Center in Fort Pierce has been teaching, guiding and inspiring the public about manatees for the last 20 years. MANATEE OBSERVATION AND EDUCATION CENTER PHOTO

Center has offered visitors front-row seat to observing manatees and their habitat for 20 years

BY CHRISTINA TASCON

The Manatee Observation and Education Center on North Indian River Drive is one of those places you may pass dozens of times and idly make a note-to-self to stop by the next time northern friends are visiting. The center, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, is one of those gems that makes Fort Pierce’s waterfront interesting and special, so it might be a good time to stop by and see what it offers.

Of course, just the name manatee draws visitors to the outside of the center. But inside, there are videos to view, sea stars to hold, tropical fish to feed and a black-edged moray eel named E.J. (for Eli Junior) to watch when Alana Murphy stops by the large aquarium tank where he resides.

“He likes me to rub his belly,” Murphy said. Of course she doesn’t put her hand in the water but whenever she places her hand near the tank, E.J. runs along the glass to wherever her fingers hover. “I think he just feels my energy.”

VOLUNTEERS ARE THE BEST
Murphy is just one of the many dedicated volunteers who are very knowledgeable about the creatures in the tanks and the programs MOEC offers.

“The cornerstone of our success is our ManaTeam, a cadre of 120 volunteers and MOEC’s dedicated and talented staff,” curator Jann Widmayer said. “There is no way we could provide the depth and breadth of programs, camps and events without their generous time and talent.

“I’ve been here 14 of the last 20 years and am proud of the impact we make to teach, guide and inspire environmental stewardship to more than 35,000 visitors each year from all over the world, including almost 5,000 school children.”

Stand for just a few minutes listening to volunteer docents or program coordinator Tessa Roberts and you could learn enough interesting facts about marine life to make you an aquatic trivia champion. Not only are they knowledgeable but they obviously care, too.

Volunteers and staff fascinate visitors with facts such as male seahorses have the babies; sea urchins have five teeth on their underside that scrape away algae and clean the tanks; and sea stars (commonly called starfish) have eyes or sensors at the ends of their five arms. Education coordinator Erin Cartmill shares many of these interesting details as she makes her rounds with her portable touch tank. Children might first shy away from holding the spiny sea urchins or clingy sea stars, but eventually their curiosity overcomes trepidation.

“They’re really bumpy,” Julia Lawfer said as she touched her first sea star. She and her family were visiting from Pennsylvania and dressed head to toe in Mets regalia. Although their big night out during spring break would be at Tradition Field cheering for their favorite team, the manatee center was also a vacation highlight.

MANATEE MAGNET
The center, which opened on Oct. 27, 1996, overlooks Indian River Lagoon and Moore’s Creek. It is a not-for-profit organization funded with an initial Florida Inland Navigational District grant. Its location along a freshwater tributary was once next to the H.D. King Power Plant, which was decommissioned in 2008.

Manatees were attracted to the area because the plant’s runoff raised the water temperature around the plant 6 to 8 degrees. Even though the plant no longer warms the water, manatees still return each year in their migratory pattern through historical memory and habit. This is good for visitors as they stand along the creek or in the center’s observation tower to try and catch a glimpse of the slow-moving, sweet sea cows.

“The canal is more shallow by the center than in the open lagoon and it is also a freshwater tributary so it warms up faster and is fresher which keeps the manatees coming back to it,” Widmayer said.

Viewing these creatures takes patience since they are not always in the creek nor do they stay at the top where visitors can easily see them. But when their soft whiskers break the surface, each glimpse draws exclamations of awe. While waiting for a manatee, visitors may also look for sting rays, terns, pelicans, various marine creatures and even an occasional dolphin playing between the boats moored along the docks.

“Last year more than 35,000 visitors walked through our doors to learn about manatees and others critters of the Indian River lagoon but what we like to say is that the learning begins before you walk in our doors,” development officer Diane Kimes said.

Around the center’s perimeter and along the creek are informative signs that visitors can read when the center is closed or before they enter the building. The placards, which the center is updating, include information on the 300 different birds who live by the lagoon, explain why manatees are so important and describe the types of seagrasses in the area.

EDUCATIONAL MISSION
MOEC’s primary purpose is to educate visitors about the waterways and its inhabitants with the hope that they will become more aware how their daily actions directly affect the lagoon’s ecosystem. Its mission is to make sure that everyone does their part to protect the lagoon, whether it is knowing how to dispose of fishing line properly; regulating boat speeds to protect manatees; or keeping pollutants from running into the lagoon.

“We have developed thematic programs aligned with the Sunshine State standards, which means that the classes follow along with school level programs and become another tool for the schools to use for science, vocabulary and other subjects along a prescribed curriculum,” Kimes explained. “We want to bring the Manatee Center up to the 21st century by bringing technology into our exhibits the way the community uses digital technology in the world. Kids are tactile and learn differently today, they like connecting the dots and seeing how what we do affects the world around us.”

In March, MOEC held a 5K fundraiser with the Treasure Coast Manatee Foundation, an organization founded in 1998 to support the educational efforts of the center. Plans also are being made for a fall fundraiser called Manatee Magic. The organizations hope to raise enough money to buy a 15-passenger van to bring members of the Boys & Girls Club and other groups to the center or nature camps. Children will go seining and kayaking on the lagoon during three weeks of summer day camp for only $170 per week. Scholarships are also available for students who cannot afford it.

UNFORGETTABLE LESSONS
All of their efforts are to educate the public about environmental awareness and being good stewards of our fragile ecology. Cartmill is on that front line in the classrooms speaking to the children directly.

“We don’t do anything including our summer camps or programs to make a profit,” said Cartmill. “We do them to immerse kids in natural Florida. We have a variety of programs in-house and go to the classrooms with programs which we modify to meet the needs of grade levels of the children.”

Cartmill said that above all, live animals are what gets people, especially kids, excited. Whether it is seeing Diego, the resident corn snake, or showing them how sea stars regurgitate their stomachs to eat an oyster or telling them some kind of weird fact about the ways they move and defend themselves, Cartmill says the stranger the better.

“Our lessons teach the kids that sea stars and urchins do not have a brain or a heart but they are just like super heroes who can regenerate their arms or have inside-out stomachs to digest their meals externally and that is like their super power,” Cartmill said. “The most gratifying thing is introducing children to the Indian River Lagoon which is such a huge resource for us and has so much to offer and watching them walk in the water seining for the first time. Their faces light up and they remember it for the rest of their lives.”


IF YOU GO

Where: 480 N. Indian River Drive, Fort Pierce
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.; closed Mondays.
Summer Hours: July 1-Sept. 30: Thursday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Lagoon tours: The center offers a 90-minute Indian River Lagoon Wildlife Boat Tour daily for a minimum of 6 passengers, weather permitting. Reservations can be made in advance with Capt. Barry “Chop” Legé through the Vanishing Mermaid Gift Shop. A portion of the ticket price goes to the Manatee Center.
Admission: $1; children under the age of 5, who are accompanied by an adult, are admitted free.
For more information, call 466-1600, ext. 3333 or go to www.ManateeEducationCenter.org.