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Breaking Ground:
An Interview with Retired Volusia County Beach Patrol Captain Elisa Prugar

   Heading south on Atlantic Avenue and taking the right turn onto Lighthouse Drive looked a lot different 30 years ago than it does today. Nestled among the Live Oak and Saw Palmetto sat a single trailer. The home and office of a state ranger. At this point in the late 1980’s the state of Florida was getting ready to make some changes. By turning over the management and maintenance of the Lighthouse Point Park and Smyrna Dunes Park to the County of Volusia, the future of the Marine Science Center was about to make its way from conception to reality. 


   Present day we catch up with Retired Volusia County Beach Patrol Captain Elisa Prugar and recount the events of those fundamental years. 30 years ago, Elisa was a beach ranger for the county. A position that included removing injured wildlife from the parks and relocating them to wildlife rehabilitators, who at the time cared for the animals in their homes. During sea turtle nesting season, she worked nights and drove the beaches looking for nesting sea turtles. With a large cooler in tow she would collect the freshly laid eggs and carefully place them into the cooler in layers separated by mesh and sand. They would be transported to a licensed and permitted wildlife caretaker living in Ponce Inlet who would incubate the eggs and once hatched, return them to the beach on a full moon to scurry into the awaiting ocean. 


   With the transfer from state to county, Florida would require educational programs to be put in place for the parks. The county hired Elisa and fellow beach ranger Bill Bussinger to oversee the new project. Together they made the pavilion at Lighthouse Point Park their new offices and acquired their very first animal ambassadors, a pair of corn snakes, named Norma and Norma Jean. Together they created 5 educational programs, including herpetology, botany, natural history, the history of the lighthouse and the history of the Pacetti family. Over time, Elisa acquired several more animals, including a coachwhip snake, a garter snake, several scorpions and a gopher tortoise.

   Originating in November 2001, The Friends of the Marine Science Center was organized by a group of like minded volunteers sharing the values that support the rescue, rehabilitation and release of sea turtles and shore birds that are treated at the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet, Fl.

   The  Friends of the Marine Science Center is a registered 501 C (3) non-profit group dedicated to assisting the Marine Science Center in fundraising to further their mission of sea turtle and shorebird rehabilitation, conservation medicine; and marine education. 

   All proceeds from our online, event and gift shop sales goes to further our mission. To date, this organization retains it's non-profit status and operates through the efforts of our dedicated volunteers. 

   Hosting regular field trips from local schools, Elisa would take the students on nature hikes through the inlet’s trails to learn about native flora and fauna, spiders, turtles, and other wildlife. She would then bring each of the animal ambassadors from her office out to the picnic tables and do an educational presentation. After filling her already small office with aquariums full of wildlife, Elisa presented the idea of a permanent structure to house the reptiles and insects. One where the public could visit daily and have an up close and informative experience. Bill began looking into grants and in 1994 sent in the proposal for the “Lighthouse Point Learning Center”. 


   Over the next few years, several changes were made and in 1997 Bill was promoted to deputy chief and Elisa returned to the beach as a senior lifeguard. She stayed with the project for a year after to help train new employees and in 2002, where there once stood a small state park trailer on Lighthouse Drive, the Marine Science Center Turtle Hospital opened to the public. 2 years later in 2004, the Mary Keller Seabird Rehabilitation Sanctuary would open. Elisa sites several other crucial members of the initial team and thanks to all of their hard work, passion and dedication, the foundation was laid for the Marine Science Center to become what it is today. To date, the Marine Science Center has brought in over 25,000 reptiles and over 19,000 birds, and is still rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing many species of sea turtles and seabirds. Education still plays a huge role in the Marine Science center as well and it also functions as an environmental learning center. 


Thank you to Elisa, Bill, and everyone involved in those early days for your part in the amazing journey of the Marine Science Center. 

Arlene Deegan, President

   "I feel it is such a privilege to live in a community that is home to this wonderful facility. The Marine Science Center has been a source of education and inspiration to me for over 20 years.  The Staff and Volunteers share a common goal and work hard every day to achieve that. I deeply believe that we all have a responsibility to protect this unique coastal environment and its inhabitants.  I love having the opportunity to be just a small part in supporting The Center."

-Arlene Deegan

   Arlene Deegan has been a resident of Ponce Inlet for over 20 years and became a volunteer member of The Friends Of The Marine Science Center about 12 years ago. After retirement from an office position in the medical industry, Arlene took a more active role in The Friends Group.  Arlene was acting secretary for 4 years and has been President of The Friends Group for the last 3 years.