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Apodaca: Back Bay Science Center a hidden jewel, resource

July 30, 2011|By Patrice Apodaca

While on a walk around Newport Dunes recently, I was brought up short by the sight of a majestic bird perched on a post on Back Bay Drive. After a few minutes, it took wing, and as it flew overhead, I could see a fish clutched in its talons.

I would soon learn that the bird I spotted was an osprey — likely the male partner of a pair that nests at the Back Bay Science Center. No doubt it was bringing a meal home to its chicks.

That I was able to enjoy such a splendid sight is thanks to the staff at the science center, a gem of a facility where scientists and students study marine ecology and promote conservation. Not to be confused with the Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center on the other side of the Back Bay, which has a similar mission, the Back Bay Science Center is still developing a clear public identity.

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"One of my biggest challenges is the branding of the facility," said Robin Madrid, the center's education program coordinator. "We don't want it to be the best-kept secret."

From the outside, the center does have an air of mystery. The gated, 13,000-square-foot facility is unobtrusively tucked away on secluded Shellmaker Island, and it still has an unfinished, work-in-progress appearance. Though it hosts many educational programs, access is restricted to participants in organized events or those with appointments.

The lack of public knowledge about the center is also a consequence of its somewhat confusing array of missions and parentage.

The center is a partnership of the state Department of Fish and Game, the city of Newport Beach, the Orange County Health Care Agency and UC Irvine. The work conducted at the facility ranges from tracking and promoting wildlife to plant restoration to water quality testing.

These are important jobs being carried out by a shoestring staff. Madrid, an enthusiastic young biologist, is the only full-time employee at the center. She is aided by two part-time workers and an assortment of volunteers and interns.

Other professionals from various agencies and institutions use the facility to carry out a wide range of scientific work. When you hear about beach closures due to poor water conditions, that's a result of testing conducted at the Back Bay Science Center's water quality lab.

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