Sea Turtles & More: Everything to Do at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center

July 7, 2021

If you and your family are looking to spend an enjoyable (and educational) day outdoors in Florida’s natural environment, Boca Raton hosts a truly unique option: Gumbo Limbo Nature Center.

Located in southern Palm Beach County, the City of Boca Raton took special measures in the 1970s to preserve the five miles of coastline within its city limits and dedicated 20 acres to develop a hands-on interpretive program that would be beneficial to the environment and local community. This program eventually became Gumbo Limbo, which has now grown into a top marine life research and rescue destination for one of our ocean’s most popular reptiles: the sea turtle!

Please note: As of July 8, 2021, Gumbo Limbo Nature Center remains closed to the public due to COVID-19 precautions, but you can make a reservation for weekly guided tours of the outdoor gardens and unique exhibits.

Gumbo Limbo
Photo by Michelle Olson-Rogers

As a 30-something mom, Gumbo Limbo has been around pretty much my whole life. Native Floridians tend to learn from an early age how important ocean conservation is. And, Gumbo Limbo was certainly ahead of its time when they officially opened in 1984. These days, they are dedicated to educating the public about the coastal environment and promoting sea turtle conservation. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that they are a free (donation-based) attraction and located right across the street from one of Boca Raton’s beautiful beaches, Red Reef Park

Parking at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center is complimentary. However, if you have a City of Boca Beach Permit or plan to spend part of your day with your toes in the sand at Red Reef, we recommend parking across the street in the park. There is a fee for non-residents (but worth it if you have heavy beach chairs, snacks and sand toys), and there are several access points from the parking lot to cross over A1A to the Nature Center. 

Tropical Coral
Photo by Michelle Olson-Rogers

There are so many ways you and your family can choose to spend your day at Gumbo Limbo. Once you’ve passed through the welcome center (donations are recommended), we suggest heading to Gumbo Limbo’s outdoor marine aquariums to challenge your children to spot all of the different types of tropical fish in the tanks. Each of their four saltwater aquariums represents a different Southeast Florida marine habitat and you can easily view them from all sides. The two shallow aquariums were created to replicate the coastal mangrove community and a nearshore reef while the two deeper aquariums replicate tropical coral and artificial reefs. Rest assured, all the aquariums are shaded, which is key for enjoyable viewing during Florida’s “warmer” months!

Next, you and your family should plan to check out the super “patients” in Gumbo Limbo’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Facility (in the past, they’ve all been named after Marvel Superheroes…and a few villains!). These turtles have all been rescued by Gumbo Limbo’s conservation team who also handle on-site care and treatment for the sick and injured. The hope is that these sea turtles will eventually recover and be released back into the wild (with a tracking beacon for additional research purposes). 

Rehabilitation Facility
Photo by Michelle Olson-Rogers

Florida Atlantic University's Department of Biological Sciences also maintains a research facility on site. During the summer and fall, adorable sea turtle hatchlings can be viewed in the gallery. A bonus? FAU students work in the building regularly and are always happy to talk to visitors about their research. 

If you’re really lucky, your visit might even coincide with one of their famous sea turtle releases. It’s an amazing and surprisingly emotional thing to witness! Gumbo Limbo usually notifies the public of these events through Facebook.

After you say your good-byes to the sea turtle patients, walk to the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center Boardwalk. Take advantage of the natural Florida shade and enjoy views of the preserved Tropical Hardwood Hammock — a rare opportunity to visit an ecosystem which once flourished throughout the state of Florida. It’s a vivid reminder of how are the state actually looked prior to modern development. The boardwalk eventually leads to Red Reef Park West where you and your family can choose to enjoy a picnic lunch. Food consumption is not permitted in Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in an effort to protect their wildlife. 

After lunch (or a snack), the Ashley Trail and Butterfly Garden will round out your Nature Center visit. The best time of year for viewing is during the months of May and June when the Butterfly Garden is in full bloom. It was designed to attract many species including the monarch, sulphur and zebra longwing (Florida's state butterfly) which is a treat to see in real life! 

Outdoor Marine Aquariums
Photo by Michelle Olson-Rogers

Further down the Ashley Trail is Gumbo Limbo’s authentic Seminole Chiki, which serves as an outdoor classroom for the Nature Center’s school and public programs. As you might know, Florida has quite the complex Native American heritage. Their authentic Seminole Chiki was built over an existing platform and then constructed using approximately 5,600 cabbage palm fronds that were harvested in an effort to produce additional growth. The best part is that it overlooks the Instracoastal Waterway where you and your family might be able to catch a glimpse of a heron, a Florida manatee or juvenile sea turtle.

Heading back to Gumbo Limbo’s welcome center to exit, you can’t help but think about how easy it can actually be to support marine life conservation. Viewing these sea turtles in person is a real wake-up call to how wildlife is suffering right in Florida’s backyard due to simple human carelessness. Luckily, places like Gumbo Limbo Nature Center are consistently working to preserve what Palm Beach County has while ensuring native reptiles like the sea turtle thrive well into the future. 

Want more insider tips on life in The Palm Beaches? Follow Michelle’s blog at ModernBocaMom.com or her Instagram, @modernbocamom.

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