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Living Coast Discovery Center

Maybe, like me, whenever you see people gnawing at those large turkey legs, or maybe when you see water gushing through rides with names like Journey to Atlantis, you suffer from something called awareness anxiety.

Well, chuck the amusement parks and become an activist traveler. Yes, someone who plunges into non-footprint-fun. In San Diego County, your first stop will definitely be the Living Coast Discovery Center, once known as the Chula Vista Nature Center.

San Diego County is home to more federally-listed threatened and endangered species than any other county in the continental United States. Four National Wildlife Refuges — Sweetwater Marsh NWR, Tijuana Slough NWR, Seal Beach NWR, and San Diego NWR — comprise the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex

The theme at the Living Coast Discovery Center is: our ecology has been destroyed through over-development. Help bring it back!

The San Diego Bay

San Diego Bay is the largest naturally occurring bay between San Francisco and Ensenada, Mexico. It provides safety and food for many plants, birds, fish and other animals.

Walrus Fossil

Walrus Fossil

Scientists have been able to discover fossils throughout Chula Vista that date back 2-3 million years ago. Among others, here they’ve found the fossils of clams, snails, halibut, tuna, sailfish, hammerhead sharks, flightless auks, sperm whales and walruses — in all more than 470 different species. Today, many of these prehistoric Chula Vista fossils are preserved at the San Diego Natural History Museum in Balboa Park.

Native Americans known as Kumeyaay also lived in this area for thousands of years. They built their brush homes, called ewaas, around the estuaries of San Diego Bay. Evidence of Kumeyaay life at the Sweetwater Marsh include piles of shells from the food they ate, chipped stone tools and grinding stones.

This area, however, was subject to development during World War I when the Hercules Powder Company was built.Kumeyaay Ewaas The largest of 11 kelp-processing plants along Southern California’s coast, giant kelp, a large seaweed that grows offshore, was harvested by three kelp cutters operating night and day in San Diego’s coastal waters.

Barges containing cut kelp were maneuvered by tugboats to the pier at Gunpowder Point where the cargo was then pumped through a pipe to the processing plant. The kelp was fermented in 165 redwood tanks with a total holding capacity of over 40 million gallons. From 1916 to 1919, more than one thousand employees worked around the clock to transform this kelp into a smokeless gunpowder, called cordite.

Check out more of the Center’s timeline.

The Center

Living Coast Discovery CenterThe doors to the Chula Vista Nature Center opened in 1987 and the next year the Sweetwater March National Wildlife Refuge was established. They now have a burrowing owl aviary as well as aquariums for animals such as milk snakes, moon jellies and the chuckwalla reptile. They also have a turtle feeding area, a shark tank and a stingray petting area.

My favorite are the bird enclosures, which exhibit the bald eagle, the golden eagle, the turkey vulture and several more. The Center’s birds have all been injured in some way and are unable to be released back into the wild.

If there is a “most important” bird among them, it’s the light-footed clapper rail.

Light-Footed Clapper Rail

LightFootedClapperRailLight-footed clapper rails and wetlands go together. They live in only 13 coastal wetlands from Santa Barbara, California to San Quintin, Mexico and they need healthy marshes with tall stands of cordgrass and pickle weed in which to live and breed. They also need crabs, snails, mussels, fishes, insects and seeds to eat.

Interestingly, coyotes eat small mammalian predators, such as skunks and feral cats, that eat clapper rails, so a healthy population of coyotes leads to the preservation of these birds as well.

For hundreds of years the clapper rail lived in San Diego salt marshes. It’s existence was most common at the mouth of the Sweetwater River. About 30 breeding pairs lived here in the early 1900s, but the destruction of wetlands around the Bay meant that people thought clapper rails were extinct in San Diego County by the 1950s.

If rails can live here, the wetland is healthy. If no rails are present, the wetland is in trouble. While not extinct, clapper rails are indeed endangered because most of our coastal wetlands have been destroyed. If we lose our remaining coastal wetlands, we will also lose this bird and the many benefits of wetlands including: nursery and breeding areas, habitat for plants and animals, storm protection and water purification.

To help bring them back, the Center has placed 26 nesting platforms in the surrounding wetlands to aid wild reproduction. They have also developed captive breeding methods for clapper rails to supplement wild populations.

Thin as a Rail actually refers to the clapper rail. In Birds of America, 1842, John J. Audubon wrote: “Clapper rails have a power of compressing their body to such a degree as frequently to force a passage between two stems so close that one could hardly believe it possible for them to squeeze through.”

The Pacific Flyway

But the Sweetwater Marsh is also a stop along the Pacific Flyway — each autumn, millions of birds migrate down the Pacific Coast toward Central and South America. The birds fly south along parallel routes that include periodic stopping places where they can rest and refuel. These places are typically marshes with lots of shelter and plenty of food. Over the years, however, many marshes have been drained and developed, leaving these birds to fly farther and farther between rest and food stops.

At Risk — Bay, Marsh, Upland

Sweetwater MarshThe marsh is a transition zone between the bay and the uplands. What many people don’t realize is that a marsh helps absorb floodwaters and filter natural pollution, particularly during storms.

The Sweetwater marsh is affected by high and low tide each day. Low tides leave mudflats and tidal channels exposed, providing food for many species of shorebirds. High tides replenish food supplies, nourish marsh plants, and protect invertebrates from exposure.

The Sweetwater Marsh becomes an upland, which forms a buffer between the sensitive salt marsh and urban areas. Not directly affected by tidal change, the upland area features plants that are not salt tolerant. This habitat is also home to mammals, reptiles, birds, invertebrates, amphibians, and insects.

Upland habitats are among the most threatened due to development. When the uplands are graded, paved, or dammed, it has a major impact on the plants and animals in the marsh and bay communities.

What We Have Already Lost

The Center reminds us that for thousands of years, Rainbow Trout swam out to sea where they transformed into Steelhead. Although genetically still equipped to change, no Sweetwater River trout have been able to actually reach the Pacific Ocean since the river was dammed in 1888, causing the extinction of local Steelhead.

The giant sea bass is another fish native to the Pacific Ocean. They were once a relatively common inhabitant of Southern California waters, yet in the 1980s, it was facing the threat of local extinction off the California coast.


SapphireThe Center not only takes care of the birds, but also other animals. Sapphire, for example, is a sea turtle that came from the Florida Keys on a chartered flight donated by FedEx. Because the Living Coast strives to inspire good stewardship of our natural earth, they provide safe haven for many animals, including this sea turtle that sustained an injury caused by a  boat propeller. Upon rescue, Sapphire was found to have a “skirt” of spibiota (sea grass and algae) around the lower end of her carapace, indicative of floating for several weeks or perhaps months at the water’s surface.

Sapphire no longer has the capacity to submerge into the water fully and needs to wear weights so that she can go under water. She is also unable to release all of the air inside her lungs. This causes her hind end to tilt upwards while napping.

You’ll find Sapphire napping most of the time. Interestingly, loggerheads can nap underwater for up to four hours at a time. When they awake, they typically take a breath every 15-20 minutes.

Conservation Practices

The Center reminds us that one way to keep the bay clean and healthy is to remember — what happens on land affects the bay. Everything that washes into storm drains flows directly into the water.

Conservation Plea

To role model their preservation concepts, the Center has a composting tour and touts a thermal storage unit. This is where they keep water that they use for their exhibits. They chill the exhibit water throughout the day from a large block of ice that gets formed in the thermal storage unit during “off-peak” hours. By doing this, their annual energy savings is $1,200 and their annual carbon reductions are 6,500 lbs.

Take The Home Composting Tour

All plaques are in both English and Spanish. My only problem with this place is that it’s expensive. $14 for adults to pet a few sharks and see a golden eagle — it’s a little steep, especially since the area is quite small and can be visited in under an hour. The small hiking trails can be visited without paying. Find out how to get there.

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2 Responses to Living Coast Discovery Center

  1. Gil November 20, 2014 at 7:58 PM #

    You are a wealth of knowledge! Loved this very interesting article. Never knew that smokeless powder was made from kelp.

  2. bzzaragoza November 20, 2014 at 9:35 PM #

    Thanks, Gil. 🙂 Isn’t it interesting about the kelp!
    I learn something new with every adventure.

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