MDC Celebrates A Quarter Century of IRL Education and Conservation
The Marine Discovery Center celebrates its 25th anniversary during 2022, commemorating a quarter century of protecting and restoring the Florida Coastal and Indian River Lagoon ecosystems through education, research and community stewardship.
The genesis of MDC began as an idea proposed by then-city commissioner Jim Vandergrift to local boat captain and marine biologist Bruce Jaildagian.
City and county officials, local citizens, scientists and environmental partners began discussing the need for an educational facility focused on the Indian River Lagoon in the early 1990s, followed by regular monthly meetings by interested parties in 1995. Those discussions turned into the formation of the Marine Discovery Center.
Of great consideration in those early years was a site from which MDC would be based. That concern would fall into place with help from two city offices. The New Smyrna Beach Utilities Commission moved its wastewater treatment plant off the North Causeway in 1999, creating a future space into which MDC would eventually move. The City of New Smyrna Beach moved some of its offices into the Administrative Office Building (AOB) on the site adjacent to the lagoon, where it was based from 2000-2010. The city shared space there with MDC for several years.
But even with its headquarters in limbo, MDC organizers obtained 501c3 nonprofit status in 1997, and secured the center’s first $20,000 grant in 1998 from the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program. MDC also secured funding in 2000 through a Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND) and Port Authority grant, which made possible the purchase of an educational boat and the building of a boat dock on city property.
MDC’s first boat was delivered in 2001, and in 2002, the center offered its first school boat tour with a class of fifth graders. For a few years, MDC operated out of the Connor Library across from City Hall. When it eventually moved into the city’s former wastewater treatment plant, plans were made for exhibit tanks of various marine species. Local teachers, including then-New Smyrna Beach High School science teacher Chad Truxall — were also asked to help write educational progam curricula. [Truxall became MDC’s education coordinator from 2004-2010, and the center’s executive director in 2011.]
The center purchased kayaks in 2002, and guided kayak eco-tours began that year. MDC added a rehabilitation program for injured shorebirds in 2003, and local history and sunset cruises were added to the regular boat-tour schedule. MDC transformed a lab into a classroom in the city’s AOB site and small touch tanks were installed for display.
But as programs continued to grow and expand, MDC found it desperately needed more classroom and office space. A local resident and longtime supporter of the center donated two modular units to MDC in 2006, which were used for education and camps, as well as staff workspace. MDC still used some space in the AOB building for storage and its lab, but began shifting most of its daily operations into the modular units beside the AOB site. Fielding Cooley, Ph.D., took the job as MDC’s executive director from 2006-2010.
City officials moved out of the AOB offices in October 2010. The old city building eventually fell into disrepair and became cost-prohibitive for MDC to fix. The structural challenges prompted a shift from a center focused on aquarium displays and bird rehabilitation to a hands-on, feet-wet environmental learning center comprised of classrooms, touch tanks and interactive boat and kayak eco-tours with trained guides.
The former administrative building was demolished in 2011, but MDC continued docking its boat at the former AOB site, which is still in use. The center’s small staff also continued to raise funds and write grants, while expanding its educational curriculum, summer camps and field-trip programs.
MDC’s first summer camp began in 2001 with eight children and by 2020, nearly 400 campers were registered for nine different summer camps at the center. In 19 years, nearly 5,000 children have participated in MDC’s summer-camp program.
The center launched its first shoreline restoration projects in 2004 by partnering with research institutions to propagate and plant mangroves, as well as to help restore oyster reefs in the Indian River Lagoon. Additional volunteers and a grant-funded coordinator came along in 2006 to support the shoreline restoration efforts by Nature Conservancy and the University of Central Florida. Cooley also wrote a grant in 2009 for a two-year program with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for restoration with oysters in the lagoon.
MDC replaced the hull of its “Discovery” boat in 2010. The larger vessel continued its tenure as a floating classroom for camps and field trips, as well as to provide a larger passenger boat for eco-tours.
The center continued its operation out of the two modular units and one remaining section of the former AOB site until fall 2011, when it moved across the North Causeway to the former New Smyrna Beach High School administration building. MDC’s new site was secured through support from the City of New Smyrna Beach – which contributed more than $100,000 for renovation of the high school building – as well as though help from local residents and a grant through the Volusia County ECHO Grant Program used to construct environmental, cultural, historical and outdoor recreational projects.
The Florida Conservation and Wildlife Foundation, which is the foundation for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), was taking over the property of the former New Smyrna Beach High School. FWC planned to build a series of Marine Enhancement Centers throughout Florida and was looking for a local educational organization to operate out of the center. Their objective and MDC’s mission of education, exploration and conservation proved to be a perfect fit.
Sharing the former high school building with another local nonprofit, The Artists’ Workshop, MDC continued to grow and utilize its new space, which includes a large lab, classroom, exhibit area, outdoor pavilion and more than 22 acres of former high school campus surrounded by the lagoon. Access to the Discovery boat, used as an on-water classroom, is in walking distance of the center for summer campers.
Another grant allowed the formation of a new oyster-recycling program in late 2013, which became fully operational in January 2014. The Shuck and Share Oyster Recycling Project began collecting discarded oyster shells from local restaurants to be used for construction of oyster mats and oyster bags by MDC volunteers. The mats and bags were later deployed into the lagoon through the shoreline restoration program at the University of Central Florida and Brevard Zoo. By summer in 2020, the program had recycled more than 603,000 pounds of oyster shells from local participating restaurants and the program had expanded into six counties on the east coast of Florida.
The program also expanded from oyster mats and bags to alternative non-plastic methods of attracting larval oysters. In addition, the program partnered with numerous coastal organizations, sharing volunteers, resources and shell material
In 2014, MDC was able to secure another grant that allowed restoration of a former salt marsh that occupied the site before the high school was built. The grant allowed for 5½ acres of salt marsh to be restored behind the center and adjacent to a western canal of the lagoon.
Ground was broken for the restoration project in July 2014. Fill dirt used in construction of the former high school was removed to properly restore the marsh’s elevation to the lagoon’s water level. The excavated soil was then sculpted into a future amphitheater and as an observation mound overlooking the restored salt marsh both as a vantage point, as well as a cost-saving measure in the site’s restoration.
As the restored marsh site took shape, MDC volunteers and staff, along with scientists involved in the restoration, joined forces to help plant a variety of native coastal species in the marsh in August 2014. Volunteers planted 25,000 plugs of native upland and wetland plants, such as spartina alterniflora (Florida cord grass), the marsh’s key plant species.
A Living Shoreline Demonstration Area was completed in the marsh in November 2014, with volunteers and staff once again planting native species along the shoreline. This expansion of MDC was tagged and grant-funded as the Mosquito Lagoon Marine Enhancement Center, established as an educational destination for local residents and visitors of all ages.
The first transplanted spartina alterniflora was completed in September 2015, from the MDC donor marsh to another marsh restoration site. The Brevard Zoo also harvested mangrove recruits (saplings and propagules) from the marsh for use in other Central Florida shoreline and marsh sites.
Ground was broken in 2015 for a butterfly garden on the MDC campus. With guidance from the Men’s Garden Club of New Smyrna Beach-Edgewater, more than 20 different native plant species were installed as a safe habitat and food source for caterpillars and butterflies. A wheelchair-accessible “hardscape” path was also installed by local company All Phases Fence & Pavers and a local Boy Scout created a garden pergola later as an Eagle Scout project.
In addition, a children’s nature play area was added adjacent to the butterfly garden in 2016. The Florida Native Plant Society and New Smyrna Beach Men’s Garden Club were instrumental in the creation of a native plant garden on the south side of the center’s main entrance.
MDC gained access to a nearby spoil island in 2016, through the state of Florida to be used as an educational site. Called “Discovery Island,” the site underwent shoreline enhancements by staff, volunteers and participating scientists, who stabilized shorelines, adapted access points, removed invasive plant species, installed native plant species and created an outdoor classroom on the island easily accessible by kayak from the center. Plans for educational and camp programming on Discovery Island began in earnest in 2017.
The Welcome Desk, Exhibit Area and Sandi’s Sea Shop gift center received an updated design with new species tanks and informational signage in 2018, while the Learning Lab underwent a complete renovation in the spring of 2019.
On the MDC campus, the new Kayak Shack opened adjacent to the restored salt marsh in February 2019, providing a secure storage area for the center’s fleet of kayaks. The Hunter Amphitheater celebrated its official grand opening in April 2019 at the annual Lagoonacy festival along with the opening of new sidewalks and landscaping on the surrounding grounds.
In addition, MDC’s Diane Yeaton Classroom was updated in spring 2020 for use with educational programming. Outdoor fitness equipment was added on the site of the former archery range in February 2020.
MDC launched Project H2O in 2016, formed as a collaboration of many organizations, institutions and area colleges. Under one umbrella, the goal was to utilize the partnerships and strengths of the different organizations to promote healthy habitats and improved water quality through outreach efforts.
In 2017, during the second year of Project H2O, the program launched its “Protect Our Lagoon Academy,” which trained 25 adult students about water quality of the Indian River Lagoon and efforts used by local governments to assure clean water. Through the academy, those individuals were educated to become “Lagoon Ambassadors” to advocate for the lagoon’s health on a community and state level.
Citizen science programs have always been an integral part of MDC’s community initiatives, but many of those programs have become more formalized and better funded in recent years. The center’s first horseshoe crab monitoring program began in 2008, followed by water-quality testing in 2012, in which volunteers collect regular scientific data from various points on the lagoon.
Sea grass surveys were added in 2013, again recruiting volunteers to help collect data using quadrats positioned in various locations throughout the lagoon. Microplastics research was started in 2017, under the protocols of the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project and the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS).
MDC began offering Coastal Ecosystem classes through the University of Florida’s Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP) in 2001. The class is currently offered twice a year at MDC and has graduated more than 800 Coastal Naturalists through the FMNP in the last 21 years. These individuals use this certification as nature guides, educators and rangers, as well as to become better-informed residents of coastal communities throughout Florida.
MDC’s FMNP program added several “Special Topics” classes in fall 2017, focusing on Environmental Interpretation, and became the first FMNP program in the state to offer a fully online Wildlife Monitoring class in the summer of 2020 when COVID-19 virus protocols prevented traditional face-to-face classes. MDC’s pioneering 100-percent online class format was embraced statewide for FMNP programs during 2020, with the classes moving into a hybrid format in 2021 — presenting the text online and with field trips offered face to face.
Sharing its campus location with The Artists’ Workshop, Inc., MDC and AWI agreed to co-host the New Smyrna Beach Plein Air Paint Out, starting in 2019. The annual event attracts 25 acclaimed artists to paint nature scenes outdoors for a week. The two nonprofits are the beneficiaries of the event, sharing the proceeds with the participating artists, and offering local citizens an opportunity to purchase artwork celebrating the coastal environment.
Since its inception more than 25 years ago, MDC now welcomes an average of 30,000 visitors each year. A dedicated group of more than 500 volunteers have helped extend the reach of the nonprofit to educate, inform and entertain countless visitors through summer camps, school field trips, public lectures, classes, open houses and special events.
In addition to becoming an eco-destination by visitors from around the world, MDC has also formalized relations with numerous universities both in the region and out of state. University and federal government researchers have capitalized on the center’s location adjacent to the Indian River Lagoon to monitor plants, soil, marine species and water quality in the center’s restored salt marsh – further cementing MDC’s goal to protect and restore Florida’s precious coastal ecosystems.
– Lisa D. Mickey