Apodaca: Back Bay Science Center a hidden jewel, resource

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.

"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.

Madrid's section, which handles education programs, is funded through a federal grant. She calls her job "a dream come true," and is bursting with energy and ideas to better inform the public and preserve the delicate environment of the Back Bay. She hopes soon to install more signage to foster understanding of the local ecology and encourage conservation efforts.

I asked Madrid what she'd most like the public to know about the Back Bay, and she rattled off a list. People should understand that there is a direct connection between the watershed and the ocean, she said. All the pollutants from miles away eventually end up flowing down to the sea, effecting all the plant and animal life along the way.

The Back Bay, she explained, is a critical link in that chain. It is an estuary, where fresh and salt water mingle, and it's home to an incredible array of wildlife. Many species of fish spawn here, and endangered birds use it as a breeding ground.

The two-spotted octopus, leopard sharks, the California horn shark, the light-footed clapper rail and California gnatcatcher are among the species dependent upon the Back Bay. It's also a habitat for endangered plants such as the coast wooly head.

Every time someone overuses pesticides or dumps plastic items into storm drains, it upsets the delicate ecological balance that allows these plants and animals to thrive, Madrid said. She considers it her goal not only to make the public aware of that fact, but also to encourage people to change their ways by, for example, switching from disposable plastic bottles to reusable containers.

That mission is made even more challenging because of the Back Bay's unique position in the center of a densely populated area. About 750,000 people live in the watershed area leading to the bay — more than the entire state of Alaska.

"I really feel like there's such a cause here, such a purpose," Madrid said. "That's what keeps me excited."

It was easy for me to share Madrid's enthusiasm when I witnessed the osprey making its way back home with dinner for the family. It's there because some enterprising volunteers several years ago thought to erect a platform to attract the birds, which hadn't nested in the area for some time.

The idea worked, and now the pair of ospreys produces about two to four chicks a year. They're an important part of the ecological food chain, Madrid said, and they've become an unofficial mascot of the science center.

For me, the birds will now serve as a reminder of the vital work being done at the science center to preserve the precarious balance of nature that I too often take for granted.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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