Jace, a four-year-old boy walks the Boca Raton nature center with big eyes bouncing around the room trying to learn all the information he can from signs. Jace, who is with his parents, munches on pretzels and he seems more fragile than the juice box he is holding in his hands.
Jace’s hair hangs under his baggy backward red Jordan snapback hat. He also wears a blue jacket, somehow resembling the Paddington Bear.
The world’s largest hard-shelled sea turtle, a 300-pound loggerhead sea turtle seems to give Jace the willies. Jace tugs on his mother’s hand, until Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Coordinator, Whitney Crowder tells Jace,
“It’s okay. The turtles just come up to say hello.”
The Gumbo Limbo Nature Center is a museum and nature center complex located at 1801 N. Ocean Blvd. in Boca Raton. The complex includes exhibits, a nature trail, an aquarium, a gift shop, and other outdoor events.
Gumbo Limbo, which gets its name from a tree species, is well known for its turtle protection role. Every species of sea turtle alive today is either classified as a threatened or endangered species.
The nature center includes a sea turtle hospital that deals with everything from boat strike injuries to plastic ingestion.
One long-time resident Kraken, a 181-pound female loggerhead turtle, was found June 11, 2017, at the Indian River Lagoon, Kraken suffered injuries after colliding with a boat propeller blade.
One of Kraken’s eyes had to be removed and surgeries had to be done on her jaw. Gumbo Limbo coordinators spent several months helping Kraken get back to a healthy state, according to Gumbo Limbo volunteer Stephen Budd.
The complex also helps turtles with fishing hook removals, flipper repairs, tumors, and shark wounds.
According to Gumbo Limbo Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Coordinator Whitney Crowder, “Gumbo Limbo had a total of 66 sea turtle patients last year and 61 percent of sea turtles were released.”
Gumbo Limbo volunteer Stephen Budd, who has been doing two shifts a week for one year says, “Tracking sea turtles is very expensive, at least $2,500. It’s a blue chip connected to a satellite transmitter and the chip is attached to the turtle’s shell. It lasts about a year before the battery dies or if the turtles scrap it off themselves. This is how we learn about turtles.”
Even if you’re a local and someone who is not all that familiar with environmental issues, Gumbo Limbo has much to offer and for you to learn.
Former Chicago resident and home installation worker Stan Rousonelos and his girlfriend have been told about Gumbo Limbo for a while, and they finally made the trip. Rousonelos’s girlfriend says, “My grandmother has been recommending it for the longest and the baby turtles are so cute.” Rousonelos added, “Just from the signs alone, everything is really informative.”
Similarly, 43-year-old Mike Conrad had some friends visiting from Minnesota, and Conrad thought it would be a neat idea to show his friends all that Gumbo Limbo has to offer. Conrad has been a fan of the nature center the last few months, and says, “Where else can I see some sea turtles? Today we learned about the type of fish turtles eat. Really fun and informative stuff.”
Gumbo Limbo’s goal is to inform all who visit about sea turtles while making it a shell of a time. Everyone from different age groups jam-packs the 16,000-gallon tanks, leaning forward, with eyes gazing, hardly blinking, almost for a fear of missing what the volunteers say. The volunteers at Gumbo Limbo do their best to inform all who visit on some educational insights.
For instance, green sea turtles can live up to 100 years and lay up to 1,000 eggs. But out of the 1,000, maybe two will make it to live a full adulthood life.
Another fascinating fact is that the sex of a baby sea turtle is due to the temperature of the sand. Here in South Florida, every summer gets warmer than the last which can cause a problem with sea turtles. Sea turtles lay their eggs in the sand, and the warm sand during the summer causes more females to be born than males. The solution isn’t getting these creatures turtleneck sweaters, but possibly taking better care of the ecosystem.
Sea turtle rehabilitation coordinator Whitney Crowder has been a large part of Gumbo Limbo Nature Center since 2012, and she enjoys working with all the turtles. “I like the feisty turtles because we learn to like each other”, says Crowder.
Crowder also enjoys seeing how these turtles can grow from being the size of your palm, and then in seven months be 200 plus pounds.
One turtle that Crowder grew with emotionally was Carr. Whitney went on a plane headed to Michigan with Carr. “Not too many people can say they got on board with a turtle”, Whitney said in a laughing manner. Carr had to go to Michigan because the Michigan nature center had more room and Carr’s flipper injuries needed additional care that Gumbo Limbo didn’t have at the time.
Carr was rescued by Gumbo Limbo but they had to find Carr a new permanent home at the nature center. Whitney has stated this has been one of her favorite moments in the six years she’s been with Gumbo Limbo.
In addition, Gumbo Limbo Nature Center veterinarian Dr. Maria Chadam and Gumbo Limbo volunteer Henry Rose also connect with these turtles on a personal level. Chadam has mentioned that “Turtles have personalities, we have shy ones, aggressive ones, but they all come to the tank window to look at children.”
Chadam seems to really have a passion for turtles. After all, she wears a turtle pendant on her necklace with a matching bracelet.
Chadam also added, “Most people don’t know turtles have really soft noses, and after working with turtles your hands get really soft and slimy.”
When asked if a turtle were to lose its shell, would the turtle be naked or homeless, Chadam raises her eyebrows, chuckles, and says, “As much as I know, I don’t think I can answer that.”
Henry Rose can be found with his lips being stretched into a wide happy smile. He has a warm glow whenever he talks about turtles, and his smile is a ray of sunshine, that can cause a sunburn. Rose says, “These turtles come here devastated, and it’s inspiring when we help them.”
If you’d like to visit, contact, or volunteer at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center located at 1801 N. Ocean Blvd. in Boca Raton, you may call 561-544-8605 or visit www.gumbolimbo.org