Boca Raton. A gilded stretch of southeast Florida's Gold Coast. World-class restaurants and shops. Millionaires in their luxury-mobiles. Yachts that could have their own zip codes.
Yet hidden away on an isolated stretch of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway is a spot that is still primeval Boca Raton. It's Boca the way it was before anyone moved here – preserved in its original natural state.
The Gumbo Limbo Nature Center is an outstanding research, educational and just-plain-fun place. Here, in a sub-tropical paradise encompassing an incredible variety of ecosystems and plant and animal life, the land still looks as it did a million years ago.
On the half-mile boardwalk winding through a forest, you'll quickly come to the reason for the Center's name. The forest is filled with gumbo limbo trees, distinguished by their flaky red bark. This tree is native to South Florida (the Center wages a vigorous campaign to keep non-native vegetation out), and it has a wonderful propensity, when branches fall off, to fertilize the area around it – thus supplying more gumbo limbos for the future.
Believe it or not, you've probably sat on some gumbo limbo trees; historically, they've been used for carousel horses.
This forest, though, has much more than just gumbo limbos. It's filled with wildlife, including skinks (a type of lizard), gray foxes, squirrels, crab spiders, raccoons, red-bellied woodpeckers and other birds. There are hammock trees and paradise trees and salt-water-tolerant red mangroves, which the Native Americans called "Walking Trees." (When you see them, you'll know why.) There are ficus trees, called "Strangler Palms," because their voracious root systems have a tendency to strangle any other tree unfortunate enough to be alongside them. And, if you look closely, you'll see many crab burrows in the ground.
In you're wandering through the forest, keep a sharp lookout for grayish soil where the trees seem cleared away. These are ancient Indian "middens" – basically trash piles dating back as much as 10,000 years, and filled with fossilized sea turtle bones, oysters and conchs.
There's an aquarium here, too, including guppies, sharks, seahorses (the males have the babies), sergeant majors, chained pipefish, parrotfish, barracudas and blowfish, and all manner of shelled creatures, among them, of course, lobsters, which can live for 200 years.
A research center staffed by students from nearby Florida Atlantic University concentrates on studies of South Florida's cherished – and endangered – sea turtles.
There's also a butterfly garden where you can see 15-20 brilliantly colored species, and outdoor tanks with reefs and reef life. You can get a bird's-eye view of the grounds – as well as the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Intracoastal Waterway on the other – by climbing to the top of the 40-foot observation deck.
"The Nature Center was started by a high school marine science teacher named Gordon Gilbert in the early 70s," said Dr. Kirt Rusenko, Marine Conservationist at the Center. "Where others saw just empty scrubland here, he had a vision of a thriving nature center that would bring the community together. Now, we have 120,000 visitors a year. And Gordon Gilbert still sits on the board of directors."
The sea turtles are the stars of the show here. There's a conservation and research program, and a hospital for turtles that have been ravaged by disease, or mangled by fishing lines or, more commonly, sharks. It's poignant to come in close contact – as you will – with the patients here, many of whom are missing a limb or part of their shells.
These giant turtles – Loggerheads, Leatherbacks and Greens – have been coming ashore here for ages to lay their eggs, from March through October. As far back as 1977, the City of Boca Raton enacted a lighting ordinance to protect the turtles, which can become disoriented by city lights, causing them to wander off the beach and into harm's way. Five miles of beach across the street from Gumbo Limbo are protected nesting grounds.
In the FAU Research Center here, college students conduct ocean and climate studies and keep careful logs of growth and migration patterns in a facility with hundreds of newly hatched sea turtles. It's important because mother turtles don't have a bonding connection with their young. Once the hatchlings are out, the mother's gone. And that may help explain – along with predators such as foxes or sharks – why only one of every 10,000 hatchlings makes it to adulthood.
Gumbo Limbo Nature Center stages "Turtle Walks" three times weekly, during which you can see nesting loggerheads. In 2012, some 994 Loggerheads, 116 Greens and 35 Leatherbacks had been hatched by the end of the season in late-October. The few that make it to adulthood may live as long as 100 years. Gumbo Limbo can track them, too, by attaching satellite tags fueled by solar cells.
Interestingly, the sex of a hatchling is determined by the temperature of the sand, not genetics; the higher the temperature, the higher the percentage of females. It doesn't take a scientist to realize, with global warming escalating, this can have dire consequences for the survival of this species.
As long as there's a Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, though, the sea turtles – and a wide variety of other sea life – will have an ally in their corner. And you'll have a great place to visit.
What: Gumbo Limbo Nature Center
Where: 1801 N. Ocean Boulevard, Boca Raton
Hours: Monday – Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Closed on major holidays.
Admission: Suggested $5 donation per person
Steve Winston has written or contributed to 17 books. His articles have appeared in major media all over the world.