A Whale of a Nature Center: Ferry Beach

Hannah Colbert is an Environmental Steward who has been serving at Wolfe’s Neck Woods state Park. One of her service activities has been leading nature walks and interpretive activities at Wolfe’s Neck Woods and Ferry Beach State Park.

For many years, Ferry Beach has had nature walks- like the ones Hannah was leading- as part of its interpretive program. Ferry Beach State Park is in Saco, one of the more densely populated areas of Maine, and it’s accessible to dozens of nearby schools. Ferry Beach itself is home to upwards of ten distinct ecosystems including: mixed forest, freshwater pond, bog, and primary and back dunes. Probably the most unique feature of the park is the stand of Tupelo trees (Nyssa sylvatica). Maine is at the Northern edge if the Tupelo’s natural range and the trees are a rare sight in this state. Ferry Beach State Park, however, just happens to have a whole stand of them. Some of Ferry Beach’s nature walks are themed around these trees and their habitat. Ecologically interesting and accessible to a large population, Ferry Beach is the ideal place for a Nature Center.

20150826_132738 The concept for a Nature Center at Ferry Beach started to gain force about 15 years ago. The now late Park Manager, John Polackwich, was one of the strongest advocates for a Nature Center at Ferry Beach, and a small memorial garden and bench grace the exterior of the Nature Center building in his honor.

Hannah had some time before her next nature walk would start, so she took me on a short tour of the interior of the building. The Ferry Beach Nature Center had a more modern look that those at Mount Blue and Sebago Lake State Parks, which were both constructed decades ago by the Civilian Conservation Corps: Ferry Beach’s Nature Center is significantly younger. According to Gary Best, Assistant State Park Southern Regional Manager, the Nature Center was built about five years ago with donated money and grants. The inside is very spacious with a vaulted ceiling and bright lighting. There are numerous exhibits on local plant and animal life and various taxidermy animal mounts. The most attractive and imposing feature of the Nature Center is overhead. Hanging from the ceiling in Ferry Beach’s Nature Center is a fully mounted and articulated skeleton of a Long Finned Pilot Whale.

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Pilot Whales are some of the larger Oceanic Dolphins. In 2014, an older Long Finned Pilot Whale tragically beached itself on Popham Beach. No one was able to save it due to unsafe conditions. The Bureau of Parks and Lands worked with Marine Mammals of Maine to mount the skeleton in the Nature Center. With money from private donations and federal grants, Whales and Nails from Maine  was hired to articulate the skeleton.

Janet Mangione, a Park Ranger at Ferry Beech State Park, and Gary Best described the adventure of getting the skeleton into the Nature Center. The fins and body were boxed separately and when they arrived at the Nature Center, the body would not fit through the door. The crate was partly disassembled, the door taken off its frame, and the crate was pushed through at an angle. Even after making space, the crate only had an eighth of an inch of clearance.

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The skeleton was only placed in the Nature Center this fall and it has had a “soft opening.” Only a few press releases have gone out about the skeleton’s arrival and there have been no major efforts to publicly mark the installation. According to Gary Best the real celebration will be next summer. I know that I personally am looking forward to visiting the Nature Center when the feature is properly recognized.

This concludes our three part series on the Nature Centers of Maine’s State Park System. Check out the MCC Blog next week for October’s Volunteer of the Month.

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