The Tybee Island Marine Science Center offers marine education for youth

The vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean is just a few miles from Savannah, and its coastal waters teem with turtles, jellyfish and other aquatic life.

But for many local schoolchildren, the sea and its inhabitants remain a mystery until their first field trip to the Tybee Island Marine Science Center. Prior to the pandemic, the center’s partnership with Title 1 public schools was putting an estimated 40,000 students per year through the Sidewalk to the Sea program, and that number is expected to be reached again by the start of the new school year.

“Our goal is to get their feet wet and their hands dirty,” says Chantal Audran, Acting Director of TIMSC. “We want them to connect with nature.”

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Audran, who recently took over the center’s top title from longtime executive director Maria Procopio, has been running educational programs and camps for eight years, back when the center’s touch tanks and exhibits occupied the squat concrete building next to the pier at the island’s south end.

“People were really shocked by these numbers in the old center because we were so small,” she recalls. “We really did magic in this little building. But actually the field is our classroom – the beach, the swamp, the water.”

When TISMC’s new 5,000-square-foot facility opened last year with larger exhibits, 360-degree ocean views, and a touch tank full of hermit crabs and starfish, she expanded the marine scientist’s platform to share her passion for ocean conservation and environmental conservation. While she loves sharing Tybee’s treasures with visitors, it’s the students who deepen the meaning of her work.

“It’s the most fun to guide a child who comes from here to the beauty of their homeland,” muses the self-proclaimed “science nerd”.

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“Education is always important to me. Without knowing the information and instilling that love, you cannot protect them.”

It all started with squid eyeballs

Audran learned to appreciate the sea as a school child.

Born in landlocked Oklahoma to a Native American mother and French father near the Otoe-Missouria Reservation where her mother grew up, she and her family traveled across the country to succeed her father’s numerous positions as a chef in the hospitality industry.

“I went to 12 schools in nine states,” she says, ticking off California, Maryland, and Florida—all coastal locations.

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“The salty air was all around me and inside me — it’s in my blood.”

Her curiosity about sea creatures became more formal the summer she was 14 when she came to Cape Cod with her best friend’s family. Her friend’s father was a marine biologist at the famous Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and gave the teenage girls jobs.

Allie Wiliford, Beth Palmer and Chantal Audran walk around with Addy for visitors to say their goodbyes before Addy is released into the sea on Tybee Island on Wednesday afternoon.  Three years ago, Addy was found in a trash can in a bathtub with five nestmates at the Admiral Inn on Tybee.

“We took out squid eyeballs for him and got paid a quarter for an eyeball,” recalls Audran, laughing as he recalls dissecting the sea creatures and spattering ink on each other in the lab.

This experience also sparked her interest in marine biology as a discipline as she observed real scientists at work.

“I thought: Who are you? You’re incredibly smart, but you’re wearing sandals and a Bermuda shirt. You’re not the scientist I learned from in school,” she says of the summer in the lab, which smelled of coffee, brine, and formaldehyde.

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“From then on, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, which was marine science. It wasn’t a question.”

Every summer during high school, she would return to Cape Cod with her boyfriend’s family to work in the lab and teach day campers about the wonders of water. After graduating, she first enrolled at Loyola University in Chicago, where she played college soccer, and then finished her biology degree at Georgia Southern, closer to where her parents had settled to plan a new hotel open.

When her parents moved to another city, she decided to stay in Savannah. Her first job outside of school was with the UGA Marine Extension on Skidaway Island as an education coordinator, combining her love of teaching with her growing knowledge of the rich biodiversity of the Georgia coast.

“I love the swamp. This is where life begins for the ocean, it’s the nursery,” she explains, describing the myriad plants, invertebrates, birds, crustaceans and fish that depend on the complex ecological web.

Chantal Audran, acting director of the Tybee Island Marine Science Center, stands near Ike, a sea turtle currently being raised at the center.

“Education is at the core of who I am”

Though she loves being the kind of scientist who wears Teva sandals and shark-printed leggings to work, what matters most to her is what she passes on to her students.

“Education has always been a big part of my personal mission, it is at the core of who I am. It comes naturally to me to explain something complex and bring it to a child,” says the marine biologist, who spends her free time coaching local girls’ soccer teams.

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“As a scientist. We love to be very articulate and use our fancy Latin words, but sometimes that’s not good when you’re talking to a six-year-old.”

Audran is an exuberant and enthusiastic teacher who isn’t afraid to throw the word “dude” around. He drops sea knowledge while busy hands.

Allie Williford scratches Addy's head as she and Chantal Audran prepare to release Addy into the sea on Tybee Island on Wednesday afternoon.

Many students from Sidewalk to Sea participate in the Diamond Terrapin Conversation Program, which begins with TISMC staff digging up eggs from turtles killed on Highway 80 and sending them to Georgia Southern for hatching and hatching. The hatchlings are then raised in the center for about a year – “until they are the size of a fist” – and then released back into the sea with merry fanfare.

Her tenure at Tybee has allowed her to watch many of the children who splash through her programs grow up to reflect on what they have learned.

“In second grade they learn all kinds of jellyfish, then they come back in fifth grade and they still remember,” says the marine educator, who was once suspected by a student of being a mermaid.

“When you’ve been in one place for so long you can see the impact, it’s an incredible gift.”

“stewardship is in mission”

Audran is careful not only to cultivate familiarity with individual species, but also an appreciation for the entire coastal ecosystem – and its fragility. However, she notes that defending against development, climate change and other issues requires the whole community.

“Making everyone feel responsible for this beautiful setting on the Georgia coast is our mission, and my personal goal as well,” she explains.

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“If we can get them curious and they leave us and take action, it will make the world a better place.” But it’s not one person or one scientist – it’s all of us.”

A group of sea campers from Tybee Island Marine Science Center say goodbye to Addy as the sea turtle swims into the sea on Tybee Island Wednesday afternoon.

For many Chatham-area students, that curiosity begins under the supervision of Audran and her ocean-loving staff. Some of her favorite moments include introducing children to the ocean for the first time at Tybee, uniquely greenish-brown from the rich soup of plankton, sediments and rich marine life.

“There’s this huge spectrum of reactions. Some are awe-inspiring,” she says with a smile. “Then there’s this one kid who says, ‘That’s it? I thought it was bigger.’”

Jessica Leigh Lebos is a writer, adopted Southerner, anti-socialist, and camellia thief. It delivers fresh content every week savannahsideways.comand her book, Savannah Sideways, is available at your favorite local independent bookstore.

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