Georgia Ports partners with Tybee Marine Science Center to bring coast up close


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Ike, a juvenile loggerhead sea turtle, is the star resident at the Tybee Marine Science Center.

Reimagined facility offers sprawling views of sea, interactive exhibits

For passersby, the Tybee Marine Science Center at North Beach may appear to have long been part of the landscape. According to the center’s staff, that’s exactly how it’s meant to be.

Executive Director Maria Procopio said the center, located on four-fifths of an acre, is strategically situated for minimal impact on the dune system and to capitalize on prevailing winds for passive cooling and ventilation.

“The Tybee Marine Science Center offers visitors an authentic coastal experience through hands-on educational programs on the beach, in the marsh, on the water, in the classroom and inside the Coastal Galleries,” Procopio said.

The new facility boasts 3,500 square feet of gallery exhibits and seven classrooms. Visitors stepping into the facility, which had its soft opening in April, will notice the abundance of natural light and open spaces highlighting various marine life exhibits. The center’s residents include loggerhead sea turtles, spider crabs, stingray, snakes, alligators and starfish.

A life-size great white shark greets guests as they step toward the East Gallery. The massive animal, like all other replicas in the facility, was cast and modeled from a shark found in Coastal Georgia.

The East Gallery features exhibits that give guests a unique perspective of maritime life including a nautical knot-tying station and information about the Gullah fishing community. In the adjacent lab, shelving provided by Ikea houses a variety of fossils found in the region. All the fossils are local species including sea turtles, whales and invertebrates.

Just outside the East Gallery, immersive screens provide an interactive 360-degree view of the 22-mile Gray’s Reef, off the coast of Sapelo Island. Guests can learn more about the marine life sanctuary through educational games in the living laboratory.

“We think the interactive exhibits will appeal to a larger crowd,” said Program Director Beth Palmer.

Climbing the stairs to the Ship Watch Loft gives guests panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean while encouraging stewardship through marine education.

The center’s mission to conserve Georgia’s natural resources aligns with the Georgia Ports Authority’s (GPA) value of sustaining local communities. When the opportunity arose to partner with the Center, the GPA opted to sponsor the loft, which is the highest point in the gallery.

“GPA is committed to conducting port operations in an efficient and environmentally respectful manner,” said GPA Executive Director Griff Lynch. “We are proud to support the Tybee Marine Science Center in its efforts to give guests a personal connection to Georgia’s coast.”

The loft presents a unique perspective of the Atlantic Ocean and Tybee’s sandy shores. Telescopes provide an up-close look at the massive cargo ships calling the Port of Savannah while iPads assist in vessel identification.

“The Georgia Ports Authority is a tremendous asset to our new Tybee Island Marine Science Center and we are grateful for their generous support,” said Cathy Sakas, president of the Tybee Marine Science Foundation. “It is the ideal place to watch the ships go in and out of our busy port.”

There are also several outdoor spaces that will be ideal spots for animal encounters and educational programs about the Savannah River. A pirate-themed playground offers a fun time for younger guests with an interactive pirate ship, zipline and blue turf mimicking the high seas.

The undercroft beneath the facility offers plenty of room to grow and ample space for mini classroom programs. In the future, some of the center’s marine life residents will move to the undercroft sea turtle workshop, which is also equipped with solar panels. This area is also home to the center’s waterworks that pumps salt water and fresh water directly to the tanks upstairs.

The center’s live residents are currently housed in the West Gallery. A particularly social box turtle named Charlie curiously greets guests as they enter the room. A pair of rescued alligators sun themselves near the large windows as Maize the corn snake seeks a hiding place under a log.

A touch tank was among the most popular attractions for a class visiting from King’s Ridge Christian School in Alpharetta. Students delighted in seeing which shells might house a hermit crab or mussel. The white spider crab with Velcro-like hairs on its feet was a favorite of the sixth-grade students.  

The class gathered around tanks of diamondback terrapins, starfish and sand dollars marveling at how the animals moved. A pair of Atlantic stingrays mesmerized Emery Slocum.

“Seeing the stingray was definitely my favorite thing,” Slocum said. “They just move so gracefully.”

No visit would be complete without seeing one of the most iconic animals on Georgia’s coast — the loggerhead sea turtle. Ike, a juvenile loggerhead, was a straggler among the hatchlings in his nest and didn’t make it out to sea.

The center focuses on rehabilitation with hopes to eventually release Ike back into the wild. The center’s former star sea turtle, Addy, was released into the Atlantic amid much fanfare in July.

“Seeing Ike up close was the best,” said sixth-grader Alleigh Burchfield. “My family has adopted a nest and sea turtle just like Ike in Jekyll Island.”

Wisconsin resident Erin Fox stopped by the center during her visit to Tybee Island. Fox was struck by how much the staff engaged the schoolchildren.

“It’s a wonderful display,” Fox said. “The staff is very knowledgeable about all the animals here.”  

More than 20,000 visitors have experienced the center’s exhibits since April. Since construction is ongoing, guests will have the opportunity to see new interactive exhibits including tanks filled with Georgia marine life. 

“We are thrilled with the support shown by our local community and visitors to our beautiful coast,” Sakas said.