Gone Fishin’
April 28, 2019
Mendocino Music Festival 2019
2019 Mendocino Music Festival
April 28, 2019

New Marine Science Center Facility.

Marine Science Discovery Center 2019

Marine Science Discovery Center 2019

Discovery! Does viewing the country’s largest Killer Whale skeleton sound exciting? How about being surrounded by a virtual kelp forest inside a geodesic dome? Making marine art, listening to a lecture about ocean edibles, or finding out how a 3D scanner/printer works? If these sound like fun, you’re in luck. You can do all this and more at the Noyo Center for Marine Science’s new Discovery Center, downtown in Fort Bragg. Tucked inside a historic building at 338 North Main Street, the center is committed to showcasing marine environments and restoration in action.

The city of Fort Bragg came up with the concept for a marine science center on the coastal headlands soon after the Georgia-Pacific Mill ceased operation. With strong public support, construction of a beautiful state-of-the art facility on the bluffs is now well underway. The newest development however, is right downtown—an aquaculture program with a mission to advance ocean conservation through education, experience and exploration.

“We are hard at work getting our new site into shape,” says Executive Director, Sheila Semans. “It is coming together with the help of many.”

Visitors are greeted by a full size, authentic Orca skeleton, jaws agape, and spine twisted as it prepares to dive into the deep. This twenty-six-foot whale washed up at MacKerricher Beach, and the rarity of working on an Ocra attracted three of North America’s finest and most experienced marine mammal articulators. During a month-long workshop, they led Noyo Center staff, with dozens of interns and volunteers, through the extraordinary process of mounting and displaying the disinfected and whitewashed bones. Local volunteers learned about whale anatomy and cetacean evolution through the process, and a few of the high school interns have expressed interest in pursuing marine science careers.

“The downtown Center is all about hands-on learning,” says Sheila. “Our staff educators have already reached close to three-thousand area kids through classroom visits. We encourage kids to experience the feel of a whale bone, the heft of an orca tooth, the complexity of a bit of baleen. Kids love the tactile experience and they remember what they’ve seen and touched.”

A second whale skeleton, a blue, awaits articulation. When devastating news that a seventy-three-foot female blue whale had suffered a lethal injury from a ship’s propeller off the Mendocino coast and washed ashore, community members voiced the desire to salvage the beautiful creature’s skeleton. More than two hundred people walked away from their normal lives to participate in an unprecedented effort to haul seventy-tons of bones and blubber up a forty-foot cliff and bury the whale in compost out in the forest. Four years later the whale was unearthed with plans for the skeleton to eventually be displayed at the Marine Center’s headlands site, the Crow’s Nest Interpretive Center.

Sheila points to the lecture area, where walls are being covered in colorful paper for an upcoming event. “It’s going to be a bull kelp forest,” Sheila explains, “They are the foundation and structure of our coastal ecosystem.” The floating canopy of brown algae gives shelter to young fish, and the kelp itself provides food for valuable species like red abalone and red sea urchin. Our kelp forests are in serious trouble. In the past five years, California’s kelp has decreased by ninety-three percent.

The Noyo Center has an exciting “Urchinomics” idea currently in the works—to harvest purple urchins that damage our kelp forests, and sell them globally as food. “The potential for the private sector to play a role in harvesting purple sea urchins for consumption is already there,” she says. “The fattened up urchins can potentially be exported overseas or used in stateside restaurants, thereby relieving pressure on the kelp forest and creating niche economic opportunities for local divers and fisheries.”

At the far end of the room is a state of the art virtual reality theater in the form of a seventeen-foot diameter geodesic dome. “You can hear about a whale and you know it’s big,” Sheila motions around the interior space, “But when you are inside the dome and a whale swims by, then you know exactly how big.”

The dome was designed and constructed by a staff engineer with help from several board members and local experts, all putting in hundreds of hours of volunteer time. “The role of volunteers goes to the very heart of this community-based non-profit,” says board president Pete O’Donahue. “Our staff’s dedication to the Noyo Center’s mission can best be described as a love affair, and the same is true for our board members and volunteers.”

Materials for the dome project were almost entirely donated by local firms. The notable exception are the advanced electronics and projection equipment, and an underwater drone that will monitor and film the kelp forests, donated by Bay Area and overseas firms. “We believe the increasing involvement of outside firms in our project demonstrates growing awareness and support of our efforts,” says Pete. “Because of this, visitors will be able to experience what it is like to swim through a kelp forest without getting wet.”

Beyond the dome is a “makerspace” called OceanWORKS, utilized for science, math and technology focused on marine biology. It houses a Marine Technology Program including Underwater Robotics, Virtual Reality and a 3D scanner/printer that was used to replicate the entire set of forty-four fragile orca teeth from the original specimens. “This is where we anticipate being able to offer a wide range of interesting activities. Inspiring future scientists is an important part of our mission,” says Sheila.

Additional classroom space, headed by a local creative non-profit, FlockWORKS, will bring understanding of our coastal and marine environment through artistic creativity. The theme “Oceans of Plastics” resulted in an interesting mobile exploring the impact of plastics on the ecosystem. A swim through a kelp forest, plastic trash fashions as well as an ocean float for the 4th of July Parade are all in the works. “The creative possibilities to raise awareness through art are unlimited,” says director, Janet Self.

“The Noyo Center is very much a community based organization,” O’Donahue says, “Citizens can join the team of scientists volunteering to meet every local commercial boat with purple urchins removed from local kelp beds—measuring, weighing and counting them as part of a scientific database.” Volunteers help organize beach clean-ups and public science lecture series. Any and all contributions of time, funds and labor are always welcome.

Come by the Center to shop the unique collection of logo souvenirs and gift items. You can also sign up the kids for Marine Science Camp (age six to fifteen) held this summer in June and July. For more details about exciting projects, current hours of operation, and volunteer sign up, check the website: www.NoyoCenter.org

Help spread the word about the Noyo Marine Center to friends and associates everywhere. After all, it’s everyone’s ocean.