Gigi the loggerhead sea turtle had a rough life.
In 1998, Gigi washed ashore in central Florida after a storm. Covered in barnacles and badly emaciated, she would not have survived very long. Despite being an otherwise healthy turtle, she had not been eating for some time, and the stress had taken its toll.
The problem lay in her eyes. Either through illness or injury, Gigi had become completely blind.
Fortunately, Sea World rescuers found Gigi and brought her to their rehabilitation center. Through antibiotics and months of care, they got her back to a healthy weight.
But her vision never returned.
Without her sight, she could not be released into the wild because she would be unable to locate food or avoid predators.
For 17 years, Gigi remained in the rehabilitation center, receiving upstanding care, but awaiting a forever home. With her disability, Gigi would need a special setup and a special team of people to care for her.
That is where the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center comes in.
The center welcomed Gigi to her new home in August 2016. Now she spends her days educating thousands of yearly visitors about sea turtle conservation. She swims around her state of the art, saltwater pool greeting visitors with a friendly breech when she hears them approach.
To say the sea turtle center is my favorite place on Navarre Beach is an understatement. This beachfront center is just inside the Navarre Beach Marine Park one left turn away from the Navarre Beach Bridge.
Once an abandoned state park information center, the building now displays brightly painted sea turtles. The center is the only one of its kind in the Florida Panhandle.
Along with Gigi, the center is home to a variety of other species. Pumpkin the diamondback terrapin sometimes greets visitors in her out door abode or splashes a hello from her indoor tank.
Native species of fish swim around a mock-up of the Navarre Beach reef, and another tank houses invasive lionfish to illustrate to visitors why invasive species threaten our ecosystem. Interactive displays teach visitors young and old about the life cycle of sea turtles from eggs buried in the sand to hatchlings scurrying to sea to adults swimming the deep for 100 years.
There are also lessons on how humans can limit their impacts to threatened and endangered sea turtle species.
The gift shop offers unique and handcrafted souvenirs themed around the Gulf of Mexico and its creatures that cannot be found anywhere else.
But Gigi is the star of the center. She loves to devour her favorite foods of mackerel and squid and swim close to children pressing close to her pool’s glass. She has stolen the hearts of her caregivers as well as the locals.
Come fall in love with her, too.
Visit the sea turtle center and all the great ecotourism stops on Navarre Beach while staying beachfront at one of our great accommodations.