Located just east of Downtown Boca Raton (did you know that the city literally translates to the Rat’s Mouth in spanish? I know. Weird name.), Gumbo Limbo Nature Center is one of those places that make a perfect day trip. It’s right across the street from the beach, cheap (okay, technically it’s free, but they ask for a donation of like five buck per person), and full of educational displays and interpretive programs. They also have a couple of areas where small kids can play.
There’s a ton to do there. When you first enter, a friendly volunteer greets you and is available to answer any questions you have. The few displays within the main building showcase a few of Florida’s native and exotic snakes, an articulated manatee skeleton, a beautiful reef tank stocked with native fish, and another tank full of invasive and poisonous lionfish. To the right, there’s also a gift shop with a ton of marine-themed merchandise available for purchase (all of it goes to a good cause).
From the visitor center, you’re directed out back, where you have a wide variety of things to look at. First, there are the two large tanks that mimic daily life on a Florida reef. These tanks were featured on National Geographic’s Tank Kings. It has a good variety of native fish in there, everything from angels to grunts to slippery dicks (you heard me right).
Turn a left from there and you’ll come to the hatchling and juvenile tank, which is a shallow tank where some of Gumbo Limbo’s baby sea turtles can grow in size so they’ll have a lesser chance of being predated on when they’re released. There are also some other species of native reef animals in there, along with some volunteers who are more than happy to talk to you.
Follow the path from there and you’ll see the sea turtle rehabilitation center, the heart of the nature center. They almost always (okay, always) have a patient of some sort in there, whether it be a wayward hatchling or an animal that has some sort of injury or illness. Here too, you will be able to find volunteers to talk to; it’s really important that you learn how to be sea turtle safe if you’re here on the beach in the summer, so here’s a good chance to learn. The operation suite is also visible here, and depending on the time of day and the time you come, you might be fortunate enough to see a procedure in progress.
There are a ton of other rooms in the main building, however they’re usually off-access to the public. The majority of these are classrooms where Gumbo Limbo holds day camps, seminars, and turtle walk/release seminars. There’s also a two-story laboratory that FAU owns, which facilitates a myriad of projects (they had some leatherback hatchlings in there a couple of years ago that I was fortunate enough to see).
Finally, there are a few trails around the property. One leads up to an observation tower that overlooks the intracostal, one leads to the butterfly garden and outdoor ampitheatre, and the final one leads back to the intracoastal and a replica Seminole chikee hut. They are all really easy walks (my three-year-old nieces and two-year-old nephew kept running back and forth on them for an hour or so the last time I went there). The walk to the observation tower is on a wooden deck, but some of the trail to the chikee hut is unpaved if I remember correctly.
Okay, enough with the descriptions. Let me tell you why this place holds a special place in my heart. I practically grew up at Gumbo Limbo; it was one of the places that my mom LOVED to take me and I LOVED to visit. I did my first day camp there when I was about five or six, and although the camp was meant for teens, I was allowed to do it because I was so passionate and knowledgeable about marine life.We would spend half the day at Gumbo Limbo and then half the day across the street at Red Reef Park where I learned how to snorkel and free-dive at the age of two.
Gumbo Limbo helps provide little ones with the environmental stewardship I feel like they need. America continues to become less and less concerned with the environment as a whole with each passing generation, and there’s a stark difference between learning about the environment from a book versus taking hands-on approaches to it. Hands-on approaches to environmental education allow children to learn “real-world” approaches to what they learn in the classroom and allow them to become more passionate about such important topics. A lot of the kids I grew up with who were in some sort of environmental awareness camp, program, or volunteer position have grown up to pursue degrees and jobs in the biology or environmental fields.
Let’s face it – there’s much, much more to the world than television and video games. Recently, I was fortunate enough to take my godsister and her kiddos out to Gumbo Limbo, and I really felt as if I was “completing the cycle” – as I can’t have kids of my own (nor do I want to), being able to take my nieces and nephew out to show them what I plan on doing for a living (taking care of aquatic animals in a veterinary setting) was really awesome. I also taught them what kind of fish are on the reefs around here (I’m taking them snorkeling ASAP at Blue Heron Bridge) and how to respect the environment. Once I move back home to the Keys, I plan on getting these kiddos’ feet wet more and more and more until they’re old enough and eager enough to accompany me on regular scuba diving trips (they’ve got like eight years or more until they can get their scuba certificate though).
While you’re in the area, why not try:
- Red Reef Park, which is just across the street from Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, is a great little beach to learn how to snorkel. Supervised by lifeguards, a very shallow reef lies just off the breakers for you and your family to explore. Keep an eye on the warning flags at the lifeguard stand though and be prepared to (maybe) get sea lice by bringing a spray bottle of vinegar to spritz yourself in after you get out of the ocean for the day.
- Morikami Gardens is a great little hub of Asian culture. Take your time strolling through the obsessively-manicured gardens or grabbing a delicious meal at one of the Cornell Cafe.
- South Florida Science Center and Aquarium is a great little educational hideaway with plenty of hands-on exhibits for the kids. It’s right across from the Palm Beach Zoo as well, which is also worth a visit!