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Located 19 miles off the Georgia Coast in about 65 feet of water, Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary is a local attraction few ever get to see. Even the sanctuary’s offices are tucked out of the way on Skidaway Island, convenient for launching research vessels but not for raising the profile of the live bottom reef.

“It’s an underwater National Park,” said Gray’s Reef superintendent Stan Rogers. “And only a few people get to see that firsthand whether you’re a scuba diver or a fisherman.”

The sanctuary is remedying the situation by bringing the reef to visitors with a Gray’s Reef Ocean Discovery Center in Savannah. Located at 340 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, along what was once the city’s hub for Black business, the Discovery Center is housed in the former Thrifty Supply Center.

Opened for a preview for about a week ending October 22, the staff is still building out exhibits. It’s expected to open four or five days a week beginning in February. Admission will be free.

The center has already gotten Lee Martinez better acquainted with the sanctuary. Martinez works at a local equestrian center but was looking for volunteer work when she happened upon Rogers opening up the Discovery Center. It immediately appealed. “I wanted to be a marine biologist as a kid,” she said.

Volunteer Lee Martinez shows off the VR goggles at the Gray’s Reef Ocean Discovery Center Credit: Mary Landers/The Current

During the preview week, Martinez demonstrated the use of virtual reality goggles, strapping them on to get a 360-degree view of the reef, as videoed by a research diver. With the goggles on, Martinez could see a loggerhead sea turtle glide toward her, a nurse shark snuggling into the sand and a school of black sea bass swimming by as if their movements were choreographed.

The goggles are a huge hit, said Outreach & Social Media Coordinator Ben Prueitt. “It’s the most immersive way to get to the sanctuary without getting your feet wet.”

The exhibits will also include videos, auditory exhibits (shrimp make noise!), photos and interactive games. An area in the back serves as a small lecture/movie viewing spot.

Gray’s Reef was designated sanctuary in January 1981, one of the last acts of outgoing President Jimmy Carter.

“And most people in this area just don’t know that that exists, honestly,” Rogers said. “That even after 40 years of designation, we have a long ways to go of educating the public about the existence of these places off the coast, the value of them and then how they are connected to these resources.”

At about 22 square miles, Gray’s Reef is a little bigger than St. Simons Island. It’s a “live bottom” reef, meaning its hard or rocky seafloor supports high numbers of large invertebrates such as sponges, corals and sea squirts. It attracts more than 200 species of fish including sea bass, snapper, grouper and mackerel, as well as their prey. Loggerhead sea turtles rest and forage there and right whales visit. It’s full of color and texture and movement. As a living laboratory, Gray’s Reef attracts experts from all over the world to conduct research.

Rogers grew up nearby in Hampton County, S.C. Savannah was the “big city,” he said. A fish and wildlife biologist, he’s spent half his career working with marine species. He’s been at Gray’s Reef since 2019.

Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Stan Rogers Credit: Mary Landers

“One of the first things that I noticed was, we were just too much out of the public eye out at Skidaway; it’s a great place for research, great place for our research vessels to operate from, but a little hard to get to for public access. So this is all about access and equitable access to the community.”

With no live animals and space for about 40-50 visitors at a time, Rogers calls the MLK venue “Visitor Center Light,” and hopes it will attract community members and tourists alike.

“So you really just kind of pop in, check it out, and learn,” he said. “In half an hour, you can really pick up a lot of information. And then and then do some shopping while you’re at it, too.”

“Shopping” refers to a planned gift shop. For now, the center is 100% federally funded, but Rogers hopes that with volunteer help and proceeds from its gift shop it can become self-sustaining.

The Tide brings news and observations from The Current’s staff.

Mary Landers covers Coastal Georgia’s environment for The Current, a topic she covered for nearly 24 years at the Savannah Morning News, where she began and ended her time there writing about health,...