Submitted by Jeff Edwards
Making the most of a small space just steps from the waters of Mamaroneck Harbor, the interactive Marine Education Center on Harbor Island houses wonders for landlubbers and old salts alike.
A handwritten letter hangs prominently above naturalist Kyle Troy’s desk at the Center. The thank you note signed by school children revisits an exciting day at the living classroom in a nondescript outbuilding on the Long Island Sound waterfront.
“Thank you for letting us touch the animals. We were excited to see the hermit crab come out of its shell when we hummed. Some of us liked the clam. Thank you for bringing them. Some of us liked Stan, the spider crab.”
Although the center has a serious mission, the environment feels much more playful than academic. Tiny and objectively adorable, brightly colored Adirondack chairs greet visitors on the front porch. Inside, ink-stamps made with starfish line the walls and aquarium tanks shimmer with both exotic and familiar sea life.
Troy and a team of dedicated volunteers keep the aquarium denizens healthy and happy while patrolling the aquarium glass for the frequent appearance of tiny fingerprints. All of the sea creatures in the center not only come from the Long Island Sound, but nearly all of the specimens were collected within yards of the center.
While the tiny furniture and kid-sized laboratory might lead visors to think of the Marine Education Center as a learning space for children, there are plenty of educational opportunities for grownups as well. Among the sea life housed in the saltwater tanks are some creatures that are a familiar part of daily life for Sound Shore residents, such as blue fish and eels, but there are also a few surprises like sea anemones and even an aptly named toadfish (which Troy admits is her favorite). A small exhibit in the back corner gives names to the sea birds that a layman may have seen countless times, but had never quite been able to identify until now.
“I see people here all the time who tell me, ‘I’ve lived here my entire life and I never knew these types of creatures were out there,’’’ Troy explains proudly.
From time to time, as Troy speaks enthusiastically about the Center, she stops speaking abruptly to joyfully point out an osprey retuning to its nest. Occasionally, fishermen and dog walkers stop in to talk about a school of fish that happened into the harbor or to chat gleefully about a recent bird sighting.
In fact, the mission of the Marine Education Center extends beyond the four walls of the Harbor Island interactive classroom. Troy often takes small groups of children to harvest seawater from the estuary, before returning to the Center to make slides of plankton for study under the microscope, while learning a crucial lesson about the food chain.
A timed game in which students attempt to identify and separate plastic shards from food sources consumed by fish in the wild becomes the impetus for a weekly field trip to clean litter from the tidal areas. The Center keeps an updated display exhibiting some of the plastic pollutants students and volunteers have removed form the water near Harbor Island. Troy notes that the Wednesday cleanups are responsible for taking hundreds of pounds of litter and waste from the bay every year. The center has recently partnered with Westchester SUP to take small groups of volunteers out on stand-up paddle boards to extend the cleanup efforts to reach even further into the estuary.
“I lot of the trash comes from upstream,” Troy explains, “Sometimes volunteers get frustrated by what seems like a never ending task, but just because we cant solve the problem doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do what we can.”
As the days grow shorter, the Marine Education Center’s small space at Harbor Island will soon be shuttered during the cold Winter months, but Troy will take her act on the road – speaking and teaching in classrooms and in front of scouting groups and civic organizations. For Troy and anyone else willing to brave the cold, the weekly cleanups will continue throughout the off-season.
“Sometimes I turn the lights on in the morning and just think ‘I love this place,’” Troy confesses before becoming distracted and peering towards the call of an osprey from across the water.
The Marine Education Center 1 Harbor Island Park, Mamaroneck (914) 777-7700. Open from early Spring through late Fall on most weekend mornings or whenever park visitors see the flags flying on the building.