Captain & the Kids

A new ocean education center aims to teach youngsters – and grownups – about the sea. And its star attraction is ready to help.

By: 

FL Mag Staff

Published date: 

Jul. 1, 2017

It’s midmorning, and Amy Hupp is standing alongside a pool giving a sea turtle named Captain one of her three meals a day.

Hupp attempts to attract Captain with a piece of cucumber; this asks a lot of Captain, since cucumber is her least favorite food. Then Hupp goes for a more proven winner – a large plastic object that sinks slowly to the bottom of the pool. Stuck into holes on the big red hunk of plastic are pieces of lettuce and other edible greenery. Captain checks it out and, sure enough, within a few minutes it’s picked clean.

Cucumbers aside, Captain has a good appetite – so good that she needs lots of supervision.

“She’s a great eater,” Hupp says, “but she will eat anything that comes into her tank. She’s just a very curious turtle. We want to know what goes in and what comes out. A good pooping turtle is a healthy turtle.”

This pool, at an oceanside environmental education center in Hollywood, is likely the only place Captain will ever live. She came to Hollywood from Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, and now she pretty much stays in the pool unless she needs veterinary attention that requires her to come out.

“She’s happiest in the water,” Hupp says.

She’s between 12 and 16 years old; her exact age isn’t known. What is known is that between the ages of 6 and 10, she was struck by a boat. Her shell cracked and water got inside, which explains the two weights attached to the bottom of her shell. Without them, her buoyancy fails and her backside floats to the surface. The accident also broke her spine, which causes flipper problems.

She weighs about 50 pounds and in her lifetime could grow to 400. Her injuries – and the fact that her weights occasionally fall off and have to be reattached - mean she can never be re-released into the wild. Instead she’s the main attraction at the Marine Environmental Education Center, a collaboration between Broward County and Nova Southeastern University that opened earlier this year. It’s Broward’s only nature center with a live sea turtle, and it’s a place where NSU scientists hope to educate people on the research they do and the challenges our oceans face.

The center sits in the quiet, less developed stretch of beach between Dania and the more bustling sections of Hollywood. Tucked away among the trees and across a small dune from the ocean, it’s a former private home that the county looked at making into a nature sanctuary for more than a decade.

“The property itself is a historic building,” says center director and NSU research scientist Derek Burkholder. “We’ve worked within those regulations [to] maintain the historic value of the property.”

It’s not a large space. The two-story main house holds a gift shop and rooms suitable for meetings or field trips. An outbuilding between the main house and the beach is home to small exhibit space. In it, visitors learn about sea turtles as well as invasive species, ocean litter and some of the research done by NSU, including the university’s shark- and turtle-tagging programs and the work the university is doing replenishing staghorn coral populations.

Sea current research is a good example of an area that might seem hard-to-grasp for people who don’t work in the field; at the center, they try to explain it in layman’s terms and show how it’s relevant to saving ocean life such as sea turtles.

“There’s a lot of research of that at the school … modeling to study the currents,” education specialist Glenn Goodwin says. “It helps us figure out how best to take care of these guys.”

Outside, an exhibit explains the difference between “good” and “bad” artificial light when it comes to sea turtles and other wildlife. (Light pollution remains one of the biggest problems facing sea turtles. Bright lights can lure newly hatched turtles away from the water – in some cases, into roads where they can be run over.)

Then there’s Captain. She lives in the home’s old backyard swimming pool, which has been converted for sea turtle use. This primarily means a much more precise filtration system, including six drains – about five more than your average backyard pool needs. Beyond the pool stands a large sea-life mural painted by artist and philanthropist Guy Harvey, who works closely with NSU. (Not far from the center, near the airport, sits NSU’s Guy Harvey Oceanographic Center.)

Because of the limited space, the place will never be a sea turtle rehabilitation center like the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton – Captain will be the only sea turtle resident. But there are plans to add more exhibits in the future. They’re also looking to bring in more adult and younger volunteers, including a program for kids age 12 to 16. Everything they do will work towards the goal of educating people about the oceans and what they face.

“We’re trying to promote our work to the public,” Burkholder says.

Adds Goodwin: “And [let them] see an awesome sea turtle as well.”