Environmental Learning Center: Watching Over Indian River Lagoon

    By Steve Winston

    The first thing you hear is the stillness.  


    The first things you see are the thick strands of forest with a few buildings scattered among them. And if you walk through that forest, you’ll come to the sweeping, horizon-scraping panorama of the Indian River Lagoon, dotted with coves and small islands, and filled with an astounding variety of wildlife swimming in the river, flying above it, or wandering its shores.


    ~Steve Winston


    Sitting on a small island just off Vero Beach, the Environmental Learning Center is the perfect place to see the lagoon – and its multi-faceted eco-system – come alive.


    “Nature is not a place you ‘go to’,” said Molly Steinwald, Executive Director of the Center. “It’s a place we all live in. And we consider it our mission not only to help preserve the Indian River Lagoon eco-system, but also to educate people as to how much of a role it plays in our daily lives.”



    Steinwald believes a facility like hers should be fun. Accordingly, there are fascinating displays and exhibits for both young and old, many of them light-hearted, such as the faux pinball machine/game-board the size of a table, on which you advance against your opponent by knowing the right answers.



    There’s a touch-tank to which the younger set runs as soon as they see it, and from which staff will take out tiny fiddler crabs to show the kids.


    ~Steve Winston


    There’s a hanging skeleton of Florida’s beloved manatee, or “sea cow,” as well as a “pretend” manatee head that kids love. There’s a wall-length aquarium filled with brilliantly hued fish. Animal bones ranging from large to tiny. And play areas with an Indian River theme.


    “The Indian River Lagoon has been the source of our sustenance, in this region, for thousands of years,” Steinwald said. “It’s an everyday part of who we are, and how we live. And it’s a treasure that needs to be preserved for all its inhabitants -- human, animal, and plant.”



    A walk through the island helps get that message across. You come out of the complex onto a path leading to an elevated wooden bridge into the forest, and straight into primeval Florida. The only sounds you hear are your own footsteps on the wood, the moisture dripping among the foliage, and the birds overhead. You can smell the fragrances of the plant life. And you’ll know exactly what you’re seeing and hearing and smelling, because signs along the way explain it all.



    It’s when you emerge from the forest onto a dock, though, with the water spread out before you until it melts into a distant sky, that you can really understand the grandeur of the Indian River.


    Majestic ospreys tend their nests at the top of trees, occasionally diving into the water to capture food for their chicks. Pelicans circle above the blue-green water, searching for lunch. Long, slim anhingas (a water bird) and egrets hover over the shore lazily. Small lizards called anoles, which can change colors to blend in with their surroundings, scurry about on shore. Blue crabs emerge from the water onto the sand.


    You’ll also see a variety of smaller birds cruising over the river, including diving water birds called grebes, which will sometimes fly right onto the dock on which you’re standing. And you’ll see leach sandpipers, the smallest of all the sandpipers, pecking at the shore in search of food. 


    “This center is really a two-for-one treat,” said Bob Coleman of Plantation, Florida, visiting with his wife Linda.


    “You not only get an excellent facility that lays out the role the Indian River Lagoon plays in everyday life here, but you also get to walk outside and see this incredible eco-system come to life all around you. And the views of the river are incredible!”



    If you go…

    Environmental Learning Center
    255 Live Oak Drive, Vero Beach FL 32963




    Photos by Peter Cross for VISIT FLORIDA except where otherwise noted