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Ocean Springs Gazzette Article by Leigh Coleman- March 10, 2010
Getting a Kiss From a Sea Lion is Closer Than You Think

The Coast is a seaboard of attractions for the young and adventurer at heart.

Once a neighbor to the Isle of Capri Resort and Casino in Biloxi was the J.L. Scott Marine Education Center and Aquarium.

Katrina washed away this educational oceanographic facility, which had existed since 1972. The facility consisted of more than 32,000 square feet featuring large tanks surrounded by impressive smaller sized aquariums.

The Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory (GCRL) after Hurricane Katrina delivered 25 feet of water to the beachfront main campus in Ocean Springs, which has served as the main sector for marine programming.

Buildings were flooded and a lot of valuable equipment and records were lost. Another casualty after the storm prompted the building of the new IMMS.

It has been rebuilt on the grounds of the former Marine Life Aquarium, which was totally destroyed by the storm. But nearly five years after Katrina, the Coast does not have an aquarium for tourists or to educate the up and coming generation of marine scientists.

That is all about to change.

A new state of the art aquarium is in the works for Harrison County. Solangi said the first phase of the IMMS expansion is expected to open in two years.

Three cities; D'Iberville, Biloxi and Gulfport are in negotiations to be the home of one of the newest interactive aquariums in the state.

Spearheading the transformation of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport will be two marine researchers and educators at the helm.

After more than 30 years marine educator Dr. Sharon Walker of Ocean Springs, who has spearheaded the J.L. Scott Marine Education Center and Aquarium, will be merging with the talents of Moby Solangi, president of the IMMS.

Walker will be leading the IMMS team as director of education and outreach starting April 1.

“This is a wonderful partnership for both of us,” said Solangi. “Both our facilities were destroyed by Katrina. IMMS has continued to build back and we are ready for the next step. We both are.”

Walker said she is ready to bring her 30 years of experience, millions in grant funding and many marine programs to the IMMS.

“I like to call it educating our “K through grey” population in the world of marine education,” said Walker. “Every child, student and adult should have the opportunity to have an aquarium and to learn about our waters and habitat around us,” she said.

Walker said she would like to kick off some pilot summer programs as soon as this summer.

Summer camps, such as the Project Marine Discovery's Sea Camp, was initiated by Walker while at GCRL.

These camps are designed to promote a general knowledge and awareness of marine life in children from Pre-K to Middle School age.

“Children should have an understanding and knowledge about the habitat around us and an aquarium is needed on the Coast. If people understand the habitat and our marine life-they will protect it,” Walker said.

“J.L. Scott Marine Education does have to deal with FEMA and other funding sources but it should be rebuilt.”

IMMS has educational programs that include touch pools, scavenger hunts, fossil digs and a small museum for admission fees of $4 adult and $3 children.

The new facility houses a 200 seat auditorium for media presentations and lectures, classrooms, a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital, and additional facilities necessary to provide care for dolphins in every stage of rehabilitation.

“We fill a void in dolphin rescue and rehabilitation along the Gulf Coast,” said Solangi. “We suffered complete destruction here but we are moving forward. Our future marine scientists need us to and even if you are not focusing on marine education-you come here and develop an appreciation for the world around you.”

He said the new partnership with Walker is going to be very meaningful as the facility grows.

“She is going to bring in the educational components that will mate with the public entertainment show,” Solangi said.

He said IMMS should be able to build the first phase, which will be about 30,000 square feet, because of a $10 million federal grant.

"Ultimately we want probably end up 100,000 square foot," said Solangi.

Once the first phase is built people will be able to be inside the exhibit touching and feeling and not just watching from the window.

Walker leaves the GCRL, which employs about 200 people.

She is professor emeritus in the Department of Coastal Sciences at the Gulf Coast Research Lab, which is administered by the University of Southern Mississippi.

She is also the director of education for the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium and was administrator of J.L. Scott from 1987 until her retirement in 2006.

She now serves as an educational consultant for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-National Sea Grant in Silver Springs, Md.; and the EPA-Gulf of Mexico Program at Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, and coordinates activities of the Coastal America-Coastal Ecosystem Learning Centers within the Gulf of Mexico.

GCRL director, Dr. Bill Hawkins, said he is not sure what will happen to the many grants Walker brought to the facility.

“Maybe she will change her mind and stay,” Hawkins said. “We opened just a few months after Katrina and returned to our core mission. But we are an academic facility. We will continue our summer programs for children, our research and other academic programs but we are not a tourist destination.”

Most of the main campus at GCRL has been restored after losing five main buildings to the storm.

The lab has forged ahead with a $30-million expansion at the Cedar Point site located a couple of miles to the east of the main campus.

Research efforts at the lab include marine environmental studies and work to keep Mississippi oysters safe and healthy for consumers.

Other efforts involve marine aquaculture research that focuses on both sustaining healthy native marine species and decreasing the nation’s reliance on imported seafood.

The fish-tagging program is using satellites to follow movements of tuna, whale sharks and other shark species.

By Leigh Coleman

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