Imagine yourself on a voyage across the ocean to a beautiful new land. You are excited about what lies on the horizon. Along the way, however, you find fascinating ports and islands to explore, making the journey itself worthwhile and rewarding.
That’s the kind of voyage that the staff, supporters, volunteers, and friends of the Brevard Zoo are on now. The horizon is an exciting destination: a new aquarium. Along the way, related marine projects are already helping the Indian River Lagoon. Furthermore, a manatee care facility will be up and running at the zoo by the end of this year; it will eventually be shifted to a new location at the aquarium, where it will be expanded to provide even more care for injured manatees.
The new Aquarium and Conservation Center will be located on the shores of the Banana River, near Cape Canaveral, and will focus on the fascinating flora and fauna of local waterways, including the Indian River Lagoon. It will feature immersive environments designed to help visitors appreciate the natural wonders of the area, and it will also serve as a center for research in marine biology and related sciences.
It is estimated that the aquarium will draw half a million visitors every year, create 900 jobs, and have an annual economic impact of $85 million, along with promoting and fostering a wide array of conservation projects. The website ourlegacycampaign.org, which can also be reached from the Brevard Zoo website, has artists’ conceptions and CGI videos showing what future visitors can expect to enjoy.
Keith Winsten is the CEO of the East Coast Zoological Society (doing business as the Brevard Zoo). The umbrella of the East Coast Zoological Society includes both the Brevard Zoo and the aquarium project. Winsten explains why the aquarium will be special and how related projects are already helping the Indian River Lagoon. “The zoo was built by the community almost 30 years ago, and it’s been very volunteer driven,” he says. “We’ve ended up getting deeply involved in Indian River Lagoon conservation—and that was what drove us to look at the idea of an aquarium.”
In an intriguing analogy, Winsten likens this undertaking to the zoo’s other conservation projects, including those designed to help the Florida scrub jay and the Perdido Key beach mouse. The latter is an endangered species that is considered essential to the health of dune ecosystems; these mice store more seeds than they eat, and these seeds can grow into plants that stabilize sand dunes. “Our conservation focus has increased over the years,” Winsten says. Why? “Because we answer the call.”
An important call now is the concern for manatees and for the seagrass on which they feed. The new aquarium will include a manatee critical care facility that will be open for visitors. For now, an early version of the manatee care center has been added to the zoo, albeit without public access.
This facility complements the zoo’s Sea Turtle Healing Center, which for years has been providing excellent care to injured sea turtles, releasing hundreds of them back into the ocean. At the new aquarium, the Sea Turtle Healing Center will be expanded, and, for the first time, open to the public. So the aquarium will let visitors see manatees and sea turtles and learn firsthand about their treatment.
Why the head start on manatee care, even before public access is an option? Olivia Escandell, conservation manager for the East Coast Zoological Society, explains: “Manatee care centers in Florida are always filled.” She likens the Brevard Zoo facility to “bed space.” Injured manatees that have been stabilized at other facilities are brought here to complete their rehabilitation before being released.
Winsten points out another advantage: “It gives our vets hands-on experience with manatees. We have a great vet staff, but manatees are like nothing else.” Working with manatees that are already stabilized will prepare the veterinarians to take on more challenging cases at the aquarium’s critical care facility; there, manatees will be cared for from rescue to release.
What challenges do you imagine veterinarians would face in working with manatees? The size of the animals is a major factor. At the Brevard Zoo’s care center, the pools have been designed with floors that rise, in order to help pull the enormous animals out of the water for treatment. Manatees also require a lot of food. The Sea Turtle Healing Center has added an algae farm, and those algae will also serve to supplement the diet of the manatees. “It’s always a continuum here,” Winsten says.
The care of both manatees and sea turtles also exemplifies the connections with Indian River County. “We work with sea turtles from Indian River County,” Winsten says, “and I know we will be working with manatees from Indian River County, too. We’re a regional asset.”
The connection is also implicit to one of Winsten’s key goals for the aquarium project. “We’re always trying to model for the community how to care, and I always find Floridians very caring about wildlife.” He cites a familiar example: consideration for sea turtles during nesting season. Every Vero Beach resident is acquainted with the orange ribbons on stakes in the sand that mark off sea turtle nests—a local example of care and concern for marine creatures. Those are exactly the kinds of attitudes the aquarium is being designed to foster.
The aquarium’s focus on the lagoon and other Florida waterways is what will make it so distinctive, explains Escandell. “This is not about Indo-Pacific corals and fish,” she says wryly. “It’s the fish of the Indian River Lagoon and the Atlantic, it’s the species of the St. Johns River like river otters and alligators. It’s all about what makes this place so special.”
Escandell has extensive firsthand involvement with the East Coast Zoological Society’s lagoon preservation projects, including the establishment of oyster beds and clam beds that help improve water quality. “We have planted over 200,000 clams in Indian River County,” she notes. That includes 15 clam beds, with particular success on the coasts of Vero Beach and Sebastian. “We’re hoping to do oyster projects in Indian River County, too,” following up on the success of oyster projects in Brevard County, where “the majority of our historic oyster population had been lost, but now we have dense, robust reefs. People didn’t believe it could happen, but I’ve seen it happen.”
Another expanding area is seagrass restoration, which is in the experimental phase for the East Coast Zoological Society. The pilot project includes two sites that are near the northern border of Indian River County. Even after just a couple of weeks, new growth of seagrass was already being reported; over the course of a year, the sites will continue to be monitored to learn more about the best ways to encourage seagrass restoration.
“We’re hoping to learn from this project in order to devote more resources to major seagrass restoration,” Escandell explains. These projects are important for the health of manatees in the wild, since seagrass is their key food source.
Collaboration is essential in environmental work, Escandell points out. With manatee rescue and rehabilitation, the East Coast Zoological Society is supporting the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Lagoon projects often involve working with Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, along with the support of the National Estuary Program, which has recognized the Indian River Lagoon as an ecological environment of national importance.
Escandell herself is in a unique position to appreciate the importance of this work, as well as the potential of the new Aquarium and Conservation Center. Today, she is a conservation manager, but her work at the zoo began 10 years ago when she was a volunteer. “I would take days off from my job to go and volunteer at Brevard Zoo. It paid off!”
Escandell had always loved the zoo, ever since she grew up going there with her grandmother; in fact, her grandmother was a zoo employee. “When I was a toddler, I went to the zoo a lot. And I always loved the lagoon and wanted to be a marine biologist.” Now, as she works to help the Indian River Lagoon, the enthusiasm that began in her childhood has only grown and deepened.
And she is looking forward to the rest of the voyage. “People tell me all the time that they love the zoo. And with the aquarium on the horizon, things can only get better!”