"To stand at the edge of the sea...
Is to have knowledge of things
That are as nearly eternal
As any earthly life can be." - Rachel Carson, "Under the Sea Wind"
The mottled light green and yellow puffer glides slowly throught the giant saltwater tank, its neon-blue eyes ringed with orange twitching as the fish searches for food.
The puffer has plenty of company. A sea robin scuttles along the bottom, which is studded with ivory-colored mud snails. Starfish cling to the sides. All of the life in the tank was scooped out of Barnegat Bay during Island Beach State Park's daily seining programs this summer.
"Everything people bring to us, they find on the beach," said Park Naturalist Becky Laboy.
The tank - with a bronze plaque containing Rachel Carson's ode to the sea from her 1941 classic - is just one of many exhibits at Island Beach State Park's Nature Center. The center is housed in a long-unused U.S. Coast Guard building transformed into one of the park's latest attractions.
The center opened halfway through the summer of 2011. Laboy and Area Supervisor Ray Bukowski are hoping to keep it open at least through the fall and eventually year-round.
"I love this job," Laboy said. "I feel like it's my home. I'm privileged to be managing the interpretive programs this year. I am extremely grateful for all the support from Ray. Without him, this would not be possible. He has a vision and he finds ways to make it possible."
And Bukowski and Laboy want people to know there's much more to Island Beach than just the two bathing beaches.
"We need to get the public out her to the wild side of Island Beach State Park," she said.
Upstairs are more exhibits, a table for children's nautical crafts and a spectacular view. Look out the south window and see the ocean on one side, the bay on the other, the famed "Osprey Cam" next and the Barnegat Lighthouse off in the distance.
Much of the work on the center came courtesy of volunteers and donations over the past few years.
"Lots of volunteers helped us out," Laboy said. "We've had a great opportunity to expose the park."
The bleached rib bones of a finback whale that beached at the park back in 2007 lie in a small garden in front of the center.
The center is surrounded by plants and trees indigenous to Island Beach. The aptly-named Virginia Creeper winds its way around holly and cedar trees. Bayberry and beach plum bushes share space with poison ivy, the leaves already tinged with crimson and yellow.
Eastern goldfinches and purple martins nibble at bird feeders put up by volunteers. All is peaceful, for anyone who wants to just sit on the back porch of the building and relax.
Laboy and Bukowski also want to take the Nature Center show on the road throughout the school year and bring students some of the park's treasures.
For more information about the Nature Center's hours, call the park at 732-793-0506.