By Brooke Morton

Fort Pierce, FL - “It’s a snapshot of all the research we do,” says Cindy Willson, membership manager of the Friends of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

She’s talking about the public tours offered twice daily Monday through Saturday. HBOI is perhaps best known for marine mammal research, particularly of the local 800-strong dolphin population, but so much more happens onsite.

Take the aquaculture pavilion, which showcases a cutting-edge integrated multitrophic system. One enclosed tank holds five species — including seaweed, urchins and pompano — and the result produces zero waste. “It’s ecologically friendly, better for fish and needs less space,” she says.

Visitors also learn about lionfish, a beautiful exotic species, native to places other than the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, that is negatively affecting Florida’s ecosystem. This hunter — so named for its venomous white and brown spikes that recall the mane of a lion — has populated the nearby Indian River Lagoon. It devours up to three times its body weight in smaller fish, and has no local predators.

The aim of sharing this information isn’t just to impress, but rather to raise awareness, which in turn ups the chances that HBOI researchers will be able to raise grant money needed to continue their work. “The grant money at the federal or state level is taxpayer money, so if everyone understands what we’re doing, there’s a better chance we’ll get that money,” Willson says.

The perfect bookend to an HBOI tour is an interactive experience on the water. Drive an hour south on Old Dixie Highway to Sunshine Wildlife Boat Tours, run by Capt. Nancy Beaver; it operates two pontoon boats to carry guests alongside bottlenose dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, egrets and whatever else makes an appearance.

Birders will especially enjoy the two-hour tour because one of the highlights is an island called MC2, a rookery also known as Bird Island. This is the northernmost spot in North America to find nesting magnificent frigatebirds, the species known for its football-size red inflatable pouch used by males to attract females. This is also a breeding spot for the endangered American wood stork, the continent’s largest wading bird, distinguished by the purplish-green sheen on its tail feathers. Adding further diversity, brown pelicans and roseate spoonbills also reside on this isle.

Behind the boats, Beaver deploys a net to catch plankton and zooplankton. Her aim is to help folks realize that although the water is swimming-pool clear, there’s a complex story of life happening in every scoopful. After she shows the sample under a microscope, guests are surprised to find tiny shrimp, crab, fish larvae and spiny lobsters.

“People have a new appreciation for the mouthful of water they swallow — all that protein,” Beaver says. She’s joking, but her point is serious. The estuary ecosystem is delicate, and its importance can’t be overstated: It serves as a nursery for everything in the ocean. Periods of excessive rain carry fertilizer and other runoff to the lagoon, causing an algae bloom. This in turn acts like a curtain, obscuring light and choking sea grass, which is the staple of the manatee diet.

Beaver, formerly a tour guide at Harbor Branch, acknowledges that both outfits work to grow public appreciation for marine life. She adds, “Ultimately, we’re both trying to accomplish the same thing — preservation.”

Directions to Harbor Brach Oceanographic Institute FAU

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University
5600 US 1 North
Fort Pierce, FL 34946

For this and other tips on Florida tours, go to VISIT FLORIDA's official tours guide.