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Harbor Branch's Ocean Discovery Center a wondrous adventure

The jaws and full set of teeth of a megaladon, a long-extinct shark, are mounted at the driveway entrance to greet you.

This is only the beginning of what awaits you at the Ocean Discovery Center of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University in Fort Pierce.

With oceans making up 98 percent of the planet’s biosphere, there is much to be discovered.

The center is led by the enthusiastic and passionate Jim Masterson, an associate research professor who is as excited about the wonders of both underwater and Harbor Branch activity as he is about educating every one of 12,000 people who enter through the center’s doors every year.

Before it was the Ocean Discovery Center, the facility served as a gift shop and registration center for trolley and boat tours. Not being able to take tourists into the actual labs and give hands-on experience was a hindrance to conducting tours, but it was nature that finished off such aspirations.

“The hurricanes took us out of the campus tour business,” Masterson chuckled.

A group then met to discuss the future of the building, and while an overwhelming majority agreed to turn it into an educational center, there was some debate as to where to direct that education.

“There was some internal tug of war over that,” Masterson recalled. “There were some front office people that wanted this to be exclusively a ‘body commercial’ for the institute … but we fought hard to try to balance the Harbor Branch commercial with environmental and marine conservation mating.”

The number of ways in which Masterson has chosen to educate both the young and old is as varied as it is imaginative.

Everything from interactive touch-screen quizzes and games to hanging skeletons and what Masterson and his staff affectionately call “cool dead stuff in jars.”

Although now technically part of FAU, what sets the ODC apart is what is not seen: namely, its sources of funding. Every dollar, bone or shell that is contributed to the center comes from private donations. Masterson has experienced the benevolence of everyone from generous monetary donors who have their own placards on the walls to those who’ve walked in and donated their small shell collection.

“We’ve had many donors help to pitch in,” Masterson said.

Along with educating children about the various species of fish through magnetic fishing game or using a touch screen to try and catch fish through sea grass, there is much to be learned about the research conducted at Harbor Branch and its history.

A history that began with its co-founders J. Seward Johnson (of Johnson & Johnson fame) and Edward Link (inventor of the first flight simulator) who are seen in a giant picture, overlooking the rest of the center.

Link’s sister, Marilyn, even left her mark on the center, acting as Harbor Branch’s historian, and much of whose dedication is seen through an interactive touch screen timeline, with such events as the discovery of a shrimp that uses bioluminescence to ward off predators, and a session with the clearly engaged and fascinated Fidel Castro.

A short film is also shown, meant as a general overview of the goings on at Harbor Branch and how its research and capabilities have benefitted more than just the science world.

To educate the public about the ocean is to also educate them about its perils, and also that anyone, not just a scientist, can improve it. Wall panels, including "Oceans At Risk" and "Ocean Solutions," while rather inconspicuous compared to other exhibits, are just as important, Masterson said.

“If I, in my heart, didn’t believe that there were things that we could do to improve the situation, I’d find another line of work.”

“That’s part of the ‘marine stewardship’ message that, for me, is as important, or more important, than putting out the message that Harbor Branch is a vital part of all of this.”




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