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Jones Beach Nature Center draws a crowd

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Two hours after Marine Mammals Celebration Day began on Feb. 23, the Jones Beach Nature Center was packed with people exploring the center and learning about water creatures.

“As a team across the region, we put a lot of energy into providing environmental education programs,” said Annie McIntyre, the Long Island Region of New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation regional environmental manager. “So for us to be able to do it at this level, and reach this many people in a day, is just wonderful.”

Kristyn Nieves, of Malverne, brought her five-year-old triplets — Arielle, Hannah and Christiana — to the celebration day. She said there were lots of different activities for kids of all ages at the event. “They had a lot of hands-on things, games [and] a lot of educational facts

that were appropriate for each age group,” she said.

The day was geared toward elementary-aged children and focused on celebrating seals, sea otters, dolphins and whales, McIntyre said. Children explored the inside of the center and created crafts and played with puzzles, sand and water at individual education sites.

Patrick Caminski, from the nature center, dressed up as the historical character Maj. Thomas Jones, the namesake of Jones Beach State Park. Every hour of the event, children sat down to listen to “Captain Jones” tell the history of Jones Beach and a fictional family who visits it.

By visiting the various educational sites, the children also learned about keystone species — organisms that help define an ecosystem. McIntyre described the term, using the example of a kelp forest ecosystem full of sea otters, sea urchins and holdfast — a root-like structure of organizms. “The sea urchins can overgraze the holdfast, and then the forest disappears,” McIntyre said. “So you kind of lose the whole ecosystem if you don’t have enough otters eating the sea urchins.”

Emily Ulceus, a park activities specialist, was in charge of a station where children learned about deep diving mammals that hold their breath underwater. Her station showcased a timeline with the underwater records for mammals including sea otters, manatees, walruses, seals, bottlenose dolphins and sperm whales. “I got my little stop watch, and I have the kids try to beat the [top] record,” she said. “They really like that they get to write their names and their scores” on a board at the back of the Nature Center.

Guest exhibitors, such the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation and the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, set up tables at the event with activities for the children.

The event ran from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and had more than 400 attendees, who had come and gone in waves before noon, McIntyre said.

In addition to learning about marine mammals from inside the center, the attendees had the opportunity to travel to Field 10 for a seal walk — a half -mile walk along the beach, led by New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Perseveration naturalist, to observe seals in their natural habitat. Four species of seal — gray, harbor, harp and hooded — put in appearances at the beach during the winter months. The walks begin in January and run through March, McIntyre said.

The nature center is one of several New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation environmental sites around Long Island, including Connetquot River State Park Preserve in Oakdale, and Caleb Smith State Park, in Smithtown, McIntyre said. Instead of having individual events at each site, the environmental education staff from each location join together and host about seven events each year at the sites.

“Instead of offering an hour to hour-and-a-half family program, we put together these festival type events,” she said.

The nature center hosted their Winter Celebration in January at Connetquot and will celebrate Earth Day on April 13 at the nature center. Nocturnal animals will be celebrated in June at Connetquot, while The Wonders of Water celebration is scheduled for July, at Sunken Meadow State Park.