A New Idea for Jekyll Island : The Jekyll Island
Center for Biodiversity and Human Interaction

By Al Tate
Retired Ecologist/Instructor at
Fernbank Science Center, Atlanta


Time and again over the years, plans to improve tourist traffic or enhance public use of Jekyll Island State Park have recommended better access and use of Jekyll’s  natural environment. Some efforts to accomplish this include:
An increase in bike and nature trails Tidelands Nature Center Nature tours around the island A measure of the success of this concept is the 50,000+ visitors to the Turtle Center in the first six months after it opened.  These efforts have had some results but are really small and insignificant when compared to something like the Linger Longer Beach Village proposal.  The real potential for using Jekyll’s natural assets remains untapped.  The 1996 Master Plan for Jekyll points the way:
P.3 Item IIB, Market Conclusions says
…Programming should include activities for children and adults, educational opportunities relating to Jekyll’s natural environment and history and special events.
…An objective situation analysis supports the conclusion that the JIA needs to enhance the existing assets it has rather than create major new amenities.  There is an abundant existing capacity in Jekyll’s hotels, golf courses, historic district and tennis courts.  Additionally, Jekyll’s environmental assets have not been appropriately utilized.  Walking, hiking and biking activities have been under-emphasized.  These activities are becoming increasingly attractive in today’s vacation market and require little investment to become more significant benefits of visiting the island.

P.9 Item V Market and Economic Analysis: A.1 Last Paragraph
Besides the beach, the natural environment is one of Jekyll Island’s greatest amenities.  This unique environment has not been capitalized upon as the unique amenity and attraction that it could be, particularly to the growing nature tourism segment.  Jekyll is one of the few barrier islands left which has the ability to combine a largely intact coastal environment with abundant accommodations and other amenities.  The increasing popularity of nature travel in the US indicates that this is a major opportunity at Jekyll Island.

P. 11 Item V C. JI Visitors Summary, 1. Par. 8:
Nature-oriented educational programming dominated the list of amenities or activities winter visitors would like to see on the island.  In fact, the top four activities visitors wanted added to Jekyll are nature-oriented:
Classes/tours about Jekyll and Barrier Island Ecology
Botanical Gardens, Nature, Plants
Nature Walks
Bird and Animal Watching

More recently, The Jekyll Island Conservation Plan (Draft) emphasizes this potential again:  In the Introduction (p.M-2) it defines the word “edutainment” as a new tourism opportunity that entertains by educating visitors and states:
“Ecotourism or nature based tourism are current buzzwords for a suite of outdoor experiences. …The important thing to recognize on Jekyll Island is that the island’s natural heritage attracts large numbers of visitors and is used by the majority of the island’s businesses in there advertising.  Maintaining those assets is critical to Jekyll Island’s long-term economic health; enhancing the value of the nature based experience and visitor access to those value-added experiences ensures even more economic benefits.

Table M4 lists a number of nature related activities which are currently available and could be enhanced to attract additional visitors and revenue. They include wildlife watching, organized tours, bird watching, kids nature events, fishing, and kayaking. These activities could be enhanced to provide some truly unique opportunities on Jekyll Island.  Figures M5 and J46 show a raised birdwatching platform and the Plan recommends (p. J-79):
“A series of 7 viewing platforms with spotting scopes should be constructed around the island to enable better viewing of shorebirds, wading birds, waterfowl, terns, gulls, and similar species.”
Page J-73 summarizes the bird enhancement recommendations to include 2 birding windows, 1 fully enclosed blind, 9 semi-enclosed blinds, 7 raised viewing platforms…
A number of other ideas are presented in section J to attract visitors and enhance revenue.

As everyone knows, Jekyll Island is mandated by law to remain 65% undeveloped and is in fact a state park.  The Jekyll Island Authority Board, while giving frequent vocal support to protecting  Jekyll’s natural environment, has done very little to understand or support the natural communities, wildlife, native plants, or marine life on or around Jekyll.  There is no one on the Jekyll Board who is qualified to evaluate Board decisions as they might impact Jekyll’s natural community assets. Detailed, specific information about Jekyll Island’s natural environment is inadequate or nonexistent for many aspects of the natural community. Serious expertise is needed to develop knowledge about Jekyll’s natural environment and to provide ideas, advice and counsel on how to manage Jekyll’s natural assets, conserve them, and utilize them to educate the public and to enhance visitor’s experiences at Jekyll.
Another short term study by consultants cannot satisfy this need. JIA needs to look at Jekyll’s natural environment as its greatest asset and its best opportunity to satisfy Jekyll Island’s long term financial future.


I propose a new idea that will encourage nature/ecotourism, protect and enhance Jekyll Island’s natural assets, and meet the financial needs of Jekyll for the long term. This proposal can also make Jekyll into a truly unique educational asset for Georgia and the nation.  It should attract visitors from around the world: 

The Jekyll Island Center for Biodiversity and Human Interaction.

This center must be operated by a well-respected and recognized institution of higher learning such as the newly created Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia (formerly the UGA Institute of Ecology), the first of its kind in the country. If they choose to accept this proposal, I would like to recommend that the Center be named  “The Eugene Odum Center for Biodiversity and Human Interaction at Jekyll Island” because of Dr. Odum’s landmark research and vital contributions to understanding the ecological importance of Georgia’s coastal ecosystems, and his interest in Jekyll Island. In Dr. Odum’s later years, he wrote several books about the importance of understanding natural ecosystems and how the basic fundamentals of ecology apply to human society. He and his brother Howard contributed much to developing this field of study. The Center for Biodiversity and Human Interaction would continue this work.

Current studies of  biodiversity or the loss of biodiversity focus on species inventories and the loss of species. Major efforts are found in remote areas of the world where habitat loss is destroying whole ecosystems. As human populations increase and demand for resources increase, we continue to destroy habitat and resources needed for other species. Yet our understanding of their needs and even the public awareness of other species that we are displacing is minimal to nonexistent. Many prominent scientists have identified the loss of Biodiversity as one of the most, if not the most, critical problem(s) we face for long term survival on earth. However, I have not heard the word “biodiversity” from any candidate in the current elections. Serious efforts are underway to address these issues around the world, but since most of the work is being done in remote locations. Public awareness is increasing but perception is that this is a problem of the tropical rainforest, the African Savannahs, or other sites far away from us.

If we are ever to seriously address this problem we must raise public awareness here and better understand our own natural ecosystems.  The strategy of preserving natural ecosystems by restricting human access is useful but avoids two core issues: 1) There will always be a future threat when human need for the protected area and its resources increases; 2) human interest and commitment to save natural area will decline if public awareness, education, and understanding of natural ecosystems are not greatly increased from their current level.

Jekyll Island is a small Island with easy human access. It is truly an island ecosystem, with many isolated populations that could, with serious study, be completely inventoried and investigated over time. A biodiversity center at Jekyll Island which conducted species inventories and studied the natural communities there could also study the interaction of residents and visitors with the natural ecosystem. This would provide a unique contribution in two ways.  First, it could answer questions about the impact of human visitors on populations of flora and fauna. Second, by helping Jekyll Island to develop innovative ways for the public to see and learn about Jekyll’s natural environment, it will help educate the public and increase public awareness and interest in our native flora and fauna. 

The mission of the Jekyll Island Biodiversity
and Human Interaction Center would be:

  • To assess the natural resources of Jekyll Island, including an inventory of species and natural community dynamics.
  • To investigate, develop, and then evaluate innovative methods for people, including the general public, to learn about the natural world using the natural assets of Jekyll Island in ways that minimally impact these natural resources.
  • To provide expert advice to JIA and the JIA Board on the health of the natural environment and natural communities of Jekyll Island, to assess the impact of any future development or JIA activities on Jekyll’s natural resources, to evaluate and recommend maintenance/conservation activities to JIA.
  • To provide innovative educational opportunities for students (from public/private schools in Georgia and elsewhere) to learn about natural communities, and the flora and fauna of Jekyll Island.

An explanation of these mission components is as follows:

Inventory and assessment of natural resources:  65% of Jekyll Island is to remain in an undeveloped and natural state by law.  However, even though Jekyll is a small island with an amazing diversity of flora and fauna, there is currently no inventory or monitoring program to know exactly what species are present, and no baseline for comparison to determine the health and viability of Jekyll’s natural communities. For example, in addition to the beach, marsh and maritime forest communities, Jekyll visitors often encounter wildlife.  Jekyll has populations of alligators, whitetail deer, raccoons, grey fox, opossum, squirrels, waterfowl, wading birds, raptors, etc.  Some of these, such as raccoons, deer, and alligators, occasionally become nuisance animals.  However, other than dealing with individual problems as they arise, there is no knowledge base for dealing with these animal populations. Do Jekyll Island raccoon or fox populations harbor any rabies virus?  Do JI deer and forest mice populations have ticks that carry Lyme disease? Alligators, while scary to most people, are a minimal risk unless very hungry or a female is protecting her nest or little ones.  Does anyone know where the alligators on Jekyll are nesting? Is the location easily accessible to an unsuspecting public?  Do the mosquito populations on Jekyll carry any of the dangerous microbes for malaria, bird flu, encephalitis, or other vector borne diseases?   Other questions of concern include:  Are the tidal marshes on and around Jekyll healthy?  Does Jekyll have species other than the sea turtles, plovers, oyster-catchers, or wood storks that are in trouble?  What about rare plants, the health of the maritime forest, health of beach communities? What effect is human activity having on native plants and animals or the beach?   Questions like these are impossible for large open geographic areas, but for a small island they may be difficult yet not beyond reach.
Many of the animals and natural communities mentioned above can and should be great assets for Jekyll to use in attracting visitors to the island; but their populations need to be monitored and well understood.

A long range program should be established to inventory all of Jekyll Island’s species, to identify critical or keystone species, and to select critical community assets for long term monitoring and evaluation.  A protocol should be developed with criteria to assess the overall health of Jekyll Island’s natural environment and a periodic report (biannual) submitted to the Jekyll Island Board.

Species inventories and natural environmental monitoring protocols are excellent type studies to get young students at the high school and undergraduate level of education interested in ecology.  The Biodiversity Center could attract graduate and post graduates students from around the country and set up a work/study arrangement.  They would then do preliminary studies, develop a framework for the whole project and then manage detailed studies to follow using high school and undergraduate students as a field work force.  Students monitoring Jekyll ecology and inventorying the flora and fauna would be an excellent and available resource for educating Jekyll visitors or maintaining exhibits about the islands natural environment. Some temporary housing could be made available for visiting biodiversity students using existing facilities since the University of Georgia already has a significant presence on Jekyll at the 4-H Environmental Education Center.  Top notch Ga. high school students competitively selected to work at Jekyll for the Biodiversity Center would be prime candidates to pursue their education at the Odum School of Ecology at UGA.

To investigate and develop innovative methods for people to learn about the natural world on and around Jekyll Island in ways that minimally impact the natural environment: 
Loss of biodiversity is one of the key issues affecting our world today. This problem is rapidly getting worse and will demand more and more attention throughout the 21st century.  Ignorance of this problem throughout the general public is a major and growing concern.  If we are to save the other species of this planet from a resource hungry human population we must educate the public.  Based on the growing demand for ecotourism, many are eager to learn.  With its easy access from the main traffic corridors of I-95 and US 17, and its comfortable accommodations, Jekyll Island provides a unique opportunity to attract a considerable audience of ordinary people.  By showcasing the flora, fauna, and natural communities of Jekyll Island and the surrounding estuarine environment in innovative ways, visitors can experience the amazing diversity of life on earth. Many species and communities can be displayed in easy-to-experience ways that will allow casual and even handicapped visitors to learn about and enjoy them.

In addition to ideas presented in the draft Conservation Plan in sections M and J, here are some examples of specific things that could be done on Jekyll:

A marsh pavilion.   As you enter Jekyll Island on the causeway, there is a tidal marsh/shallow pond completely obscured by brush immediately on the right just beyond the live oak meadows flanking the causeway. A boardwalk could be built right out into the middle of the pond and a small pavilion, say 20ft. by 30ft, constructed there about 2ft. above high tide level.  The boardwalk (which should be 4-6ft wide to accommodate a class sized group) would continue eastward to the parking area across Beachview Drive from the convention center. Along the boardwalk railing a series of linear aquarium exhibits would be set up to show an up-close marsh community of plants (spartina, needlerush, glasswort, etc.) and animals (fiddler crabs, periwinkle snails, ribbed mussels, etc.).  Small pumps would be programmed to provide realistic tidal flow into and out of these exhibits with water coming directly from the tidal pond it is built over.  A large aquarium would be built in the center of the pavilion which would display characteristic aquatic species of the marsh creeks and pools. (Juvenile shrimp, anemones, killifish, comb jellies, juvenile marine fish, etc. would be exhibited here). This aquarium should be low, linear, and built into the floor of the pavilion for easy viewing by young children.  Water circulation for this aquarium would also be provided directly from the estuarine water below the pavilion.  Seating around the interior margin of the pavilion would give visitors a place to relax and enjoy the marsh in a personal, almost intimate, way.  This pavilion would also provide a readily available educational opportunity for nature tours, school groups.

A canopy walk. In Costa Rica, a jungle canopy walk, though physically quite rigorous, is one of the most sought after experiences of ecotourists. While Jekyll does not have the flora and fauna of the rainforest, the experience of seeing a live oak forest from up inside the canopy would be a very neat adventure.  This could be accomplished by carefully building a catwalk about 3-4ft. wide up into the live oak canopy.  It would need to be 20-30ft. high and designed to meander through the trees for a distance of about 150-200ft.  It should be constructed in treetops of  the historic district or near one of the motels to provide easy access and high visibility for the public. Bird feeders could be used to attract some of the canopy birds and blinds or one way viewing from the catwalk built to shield birdfeeder sites so visitors can get very close to the small birds at the feeders.  Also, several terrariums can be built in the canopy along the outside of the catwalk and used to display other animals of the canopy such as carolina anoles, skinks, green snakes, large spiders, or even flying squirrels. These animals would be exhibited for a short time and released, to be replaced by others. Feeders, live animals, and exhibit information signage could be serviced by students from the biodiversity center and periodic visitor surveys taken to determine exhibit popularity and ways to improve it.  For more active visitors (ie. the teen set) a zipline exit from the catwalk could be installed and used under supervision. The catwalk could also be used to help monitor some of the canopy species. This catwalk should be gated and locked when not under supervision, and a small fee charged to offset the cost of staffing and maintaining the catwalk.

Birdwatching in Comfort and Style. The Conservation Plan proposes a birdwatching blind and some enhancements for the wading bird heronry behind the old amphitheater.  There are world class birdwatching opportunities there with nesting wood storks, black and yellow crowned night herons, anhinga, white ibis, great and snowy egrets, great blue herons, hooded mergansers, occasional roseate spoonbills, black vultures, and others. I would propose that JIA spend some money and effort to create a unique birdwatching facility there. This blind would be handicap accessible, and climate controlled so that all Jekyll’s visitors could watch birds in comfort.  It would have to be carefully designed and built to minimize disturbance to the birds. The interior would be padded and soundproofed so the birds could not hear activities inside. The viewing windows should be one-way glass, camouflaged from the outside and protected from bird activity above. Roosts (that are proposed in the Conservation Plan) could be added in the pond so that birds would be encouraged to land close the window for great viewing opportunities. The structure should be preconstructed, then installed at the optimum time when the birds are gone to minimize bird disturbance. (My own observations indicate that the wood storks have completed nesting activity before  mid September and other species are unlikely to be nesting at that time) A staging area and entranceway could be built in the old amphitheater. This staging area should have a classroom and retail area with handicap restroom facilities. It should also contain the climate control equipment for the observation blind far enough back and sound shielded to avoid disturbing the birds.  The old amphitheater has lighting and restrooms so this staging area should not be too difficult to create.  The amphitheater itself might be refurbished for outdoor presentations of wildlife. A unique attraction such as this should draw visitors from around the world and generate considerable interest for our small island.

A children’s fishing pier: A more interactive idea, especially designed to excite and teach young folks about estuarine fish, is to build a low level fishing pier. A great location appears to be along the Jekyll River near the boat launch behind the old Ski Rixen Lake and near Summer Waves. There is already a parking area and electricity available there. The pier should be low and extend for about 1500 ft. along the river with multiple fingers extending for 20ft. or so out into the water.  A small, manned, activity center should be constructed at the entrance so visitors can obtain fishing supplies, bait, information on fishing techniques, and current knowledge on what species of fish is biting. The activity center should be supplied with flyers about the different fish being caught so that a child can find out about his catch of the day.  On the landward side of the fishing pier a series of aquariums should be built along the length of the pier.    Water for these would be supplied from a small pump in the Jekyll River delivering the same water the fish were swimming in to a settling tank and filter so the water would be clear.  Pipes running along the back side of the fishing pier would carry this water so that any tank along the pier could be quickly filled. When fish are caught the pier staff personnel could provide the young fisherman with the unique opportunity to place the fish in the aquarium and see his/her fish swimming around.  If the parents do not wish to clean the fish, it could be maintained in the pier aquarium for a brief period or released immediately back into the river.  If the fish swallowed the hook or was badly injured, it could be taken to the activity center and processed to provide bait or chum for another fisherman if the youngster who caught it did not want to clean it. For those who do want to clean their fish, a cleaning facility would be constructed at the site and staff could provide information on the proper way to clean a fish. Also, along the interior side of the pier several live wells with a variety of estuarine fauna, especially invertebrates, could be maintained for educational opportunities when fishing was poor or to take advantage of natural events or available experts. These could be covered and locked until opened for observation/instruction by the pier staff and qualified naturalists. The pier should be lighted and during the proper season, open for night fishing or instructional opportunities. Perhaps funds from the governor’s “Go Fish Georgia” program could be used to establish this fishing pier. A small fee to fish from the pier should cover operational costs and JIA should pick up additional revenue from the increase in day visitors.

Large species monitoring.  The Turtle Rehabilitation Center is becoming very popular. Other large species on Jekyll, such as alligators, deer, and eagles, will also attract visitors if they can be displayed in a safe manner.  A program to monitor wolves in a national park along the U.S.-Canadian border uses radio collared wolves to track wolf packs. Using the internet, a low cost map, and instructions, school classes across the country can follow the wolves and participate in the program. Trained ecologists from the Biodiversity Center could tag alligators, deer, fresh water turtles, eagles, osprey, raccoons, foxes, or even whales and manatees.  Interactive monitoring kiosks could be installed at Jekyll Motels and/or the convention center for real time participation by Jekyll visitors.  This could be enhanced by guided nature tours throughout the Island and/or remote video feeds to observe the animals.  Of particular interest: an alligator building a nest, a pair of eagles, osprey, wood storks, or great horned owls raising young, a wading bird heronry, are special opportunities that can be found on Jekyll. Biodiversity Center Staff could provide lectures on the program and make sure that the kiosks and exhibit information is kept up to date. 

Native Plant Interactive Center: A native plant greenhouse and nursery could be built with public education in mind. Visitors would come and learn about native plants in their region, how to recognize local rare plants and techniques for propagation.  A cooperative venture with the Georgia Botanical Gardens, Garden Clubs of Georgia,  Calloway Gardens, and /or others who work with rare plants for propagation and reintroduction into the wild with a mission of native plant recovery and restoration could be developed. The “Jekyll Island Plant Center”could establish a program with schools throughout Georgia so that school children could visit Jekyll, learn about the plants and select suitable species to take back to their school for a plant recovery project.

Invertebrate Displays. One of the most important aspects of biodiversity that badly needs exposure to the public is the amazing diversity of invertebrates: terrestrial, aquatic, and marine. This is a whole world of life that is almost unknown to the general public.  The Biodiversity Center should develop innovative new ways to show these life forms.  Perhaps an exhibit hall at the Biodiversity Center with a long magnified tunnel at head height so that visitors can walk through and see giant ants, millipedes, beetles, and otherwise experience a real taste of  “Honey I Shrunk the Kids.”  Or perhaps a long linear aquarium constructed so that you could walk through the aquarium with its bottom at head level (for 6-10 year old children) and magnified to enlarge mollusks, crabs, tunicates, bryozoans, etc.

Provide expert advice to JIA on the health of the natural environment and natural communities of Jekyll Island:  This mission will provide a much needed input for Jekyll Island’s governing authority. Without this kind of information JIA does not have the knowledge it needs to properly maintain Jekyll Island’s natural assets or make wise use of or protect Jekyll’s natural resources.
A relationship of the Biodiversity Center and the JIA Board should be established which gives the Biodiversity Center  responsibility and authority to monitor JI’s  natural environment, inventory species, conduct field research, educational programs, and provide expert advice to JIA about managing the natural environment.

The Biodiversity Center should evaluate any proposed new development, maintenance, or other activities which may affect JI’s natural communities. Visitor interactions with Jekyll’s natural ecosystems, including new “edutainment” amenities, should be monitored by the Center and reports provided to the JIA on a regular basis.

Provide innovative educational opportunities:

Competitive educational events. Along a different thread that should be considered, the biodiversity center could host a variety of events designed to stimulate interest in biodiversity.  Competition events similar to the Science Olympiad could be developed for students to demonstrate  recognition and knowledge of taxonomic groups and other aspects of natural communities. Display and award events for taxonomic collections to include plants, invertebrate specimens and/or photos could be held across the state with finals at the JI Center for Biodiversity and Human Interaction.

Research Program: The Biodiversity Center could establish a summer research program for Georgia high school students (and students from around the country) to come to Jekyll Island and learn how to conduct scientific field research studies.  Most students are interested in the natural world but have very little working knowledge of what is really out there or how to study it. A program of this type would attract attention and encourage many future scientists.  Some of these students could help pay their way by working at Human Interaction venues or, after appropriate training, conducting natural area tours for the public. It is likely that such a program could actually provide an enthusiastic cadre of recruits for the UGA School of Ecology; students who would enter undergraduate school already equipped with a basic understanding of field research.

Volunteer Naturalists: An active naturalist cadre already exists to some degree at Jekyll Island, especially birdwatchers. By providing a volunteer naturalist activity center the Biodiversity Center can learn much about developing successful human interactions with the natural environment. With the right program design and emphasis volunteers can be qualified and used to maintain attractions and extend educational programming. The Georgia Extension Service Master Gardner Program provides a good example. Casual visitors to Jekyll can have their Jekyll Visit become extraordinary by learning when, where, and how to observe Jekyll wildlife.  Biodiversity Center Staff and volunteer  naturalists will need to collate and distribute information about wildlife and natural community activities to the convention center, motels, and the welcome center so that Jekyll visitors will have the opportunity to witness them.  For example, bird migrations, dolphin, manatee, and whale sightings, alligators, wading birds in breeding plumage, showy flowers in bloom, fish runs, waterfowl rafting along the coast are all events that could be special if visitors knew something about them and where to see them.  Observation dates for natural phenomena are of particular interest for Jekyll Motels because many of these events occur in late winter and could attract more visitors to the island during the off season, especially if programs/special events were scheduled to take advantage of them.

The Biodiversity and Human Interaction Center and volunteer staff will be essential to developing and maintaining these activities.  A high level of knowledge and an ongoing program of education will be essential to provide manpower and input for successful activities of this nature.  Because the Center will include a mission of Human Interaction, much of its activity will be focused on finding ways to interest the general public and school students in Jekyll’s diversity of life.  Jekyll Island will benefit by having a unique draw for visitors, an expert staff to help explain, maintain, and preserve the natural environment of Jekyll, and a way to avoid further and unnecessary destruction of Jekyll’s natural communities.


This idea has great potential for the future of Jekyll Island. However, it is of no value without a broad base of support and without funding.  It will take considerable marketing and careful thought about how to proceed.  If you are interested in promoting this concept, have comments or ideas and are willing to help, please send your comments to The Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island at degan@igc.org or contact me directly at altate@comcast.net.

Al Tate
Rwetired Instructor, Fernbank Science Center
Atlanta, GA