Tuesday, July 9, 2013

From Farm to Bay: Andrew Spurgin & Company Make Waves at the Living Coast Discovery Center

Almost daily I'm sent emails by friends and PR folks asking me to promote their food events. As they proliferate I've had to learn to be more selective. Well, Chef Andrew Spurgin has a similar problem. He's deluged with requests to volunteer his culinary and food event planning expertise (I know this because I'm often an an asker). So, when Andrew and I had a conversation about this subject and he told me how he's trying to learn to say no, but had to say yes to the Living Coast Discovery Center because after visiting there he fell in love--and then asked me if I could help with a piece on their summer fundraiser, From Farm to Bay, I had to see what melted his heart.

Fortunately, the Living Coast Discovery Center was eager to invite me for a visit and it coincided with the arrival of my sister-in-law and 14-year-old niece from North Carolina, who, like many teenage girls, loves animals. We were given the option of a sea turtle feeding, a shark and ray feeding, or an owl encounter. Shea chose the sea turtles.

So, before I tell you about the event, I want to try and make your heart melt, too. If you live in San Diego or visit the area, you know all about Sea World. Well, the Living Coast Discovery Center is much more intimate. It sits on the 316-acre Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge just six miles south of downtown San Diego. You may know it as the Chula Vista Nature Center, but just last year it changed its name to reflect its independent status, which developed in 2008 with the budget problems suffered by the City of Chula Vista. Now, it's a 501(c)(3).

That's not what's going to make you fall in love, though. It's what it is and what it does. This bayside treasure has a magnificent collection of local plants and animals that visitors can spend time with in a setting that lets them get up close and personal. In fact, its relative smallness is its strength. It's a joyful place that enables kids to run around without parents worrying about losing them in a crowd, and that lets them interact with the animals and see many of them in their natural environment.

So, what did we see?

We started behind the scenes with guest experience coordinator Sherry Lankston, who took us into a room with a small aquarium filled with starfish, snails, sea cucumbers, and other marine invertebrates, which we got to pick up and touch. We even got to touch tiny jellyfish, which as you can imagine is a strange sensation--like touching a tiny and thin plastic bag filled with water and in motion. As we were leaving we noted the pile of cut-up squid that one of the staff was working on for feeding the small sharks and other fish.

The sea turtle environment is sort of the welcome mat for the Center. It's the first thing you see as you walk up (by the way, you park in a lot off the 5 freeway and take a free shuttle to the Center, which drops you off at the front and returns you to your car when you're ready). Once we entered the lagoon enclosure, we were on display, along with the turtles. Sherry and her intern brought lettuce in with us so we could feed them and like puppies they were eager for a snack.

Sherry surprised us by grabbing a large net and pulling one of the 60-pound turtles up and out of the water for us to touch.

At age four, these turtles are youngsters. They can live up to 100 years. They swim in pods around San Diego that number from 60 to 80, living in and around eelgrass beds. While they have no teeth, their jaws are masterful. Right now, the Center has four sea turtles from Sea World (the organizations collaborate on a number of projects), and two will be going back.

While our experience was special, it's something many can participate in. Sherry explained that the Center also holds programs like Biologist for a Day for teens that gives them realistic experiences in caring for these animals--both aquatic and avian--with lots of cleaning up and feeding.

Once Sherry returned our new buddy to the water, she led us into the Discovery Center Gallery and set us loose to wander around the rest of the grounds. Kids--mostly campers on field trips--were racing around the exhibits, taking in the current Deadly Waters displays, with piranhas, sharks, barracudas, and more just beyond reach. They were doing the same at the Shark and Ray Experience, an exhibit that lets you see both above and inside the waters where these sea creatures reside together.

One of the most alluring parts of the Center is the Shorebird Aviary. It's so well done you barely notice the netting. Walk past the sweet little burrowing owl, which nests in underground burrows.

Turn the corner and there you'll see the reason why the Center is so well sited.

Keep walking and you'll find Raptor Row, an area with enclosures for falcons, owls, hawks, and osprey.

There's a native plant garden that can inspire gardening ideas, a mile-and-a-half trail that leads to the San Diego Bay, and an area set up for programs.

Get to the Center at the right time, and you can watch various animals being fed, which is remarkable to see so close up.

All in all, it's a jewel of a place for kids and adults to really take in the diversity and bounty of our local coastal wildlife--and something worthy of support.

And that brings me to From Farm to Bay: Food & Wine Classic, which will take place Saturday, Aug. 3 from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Center. Andrew has recruited dozens of restaurants, breweries, vineyards, and mixologists to serve truly the best of San Diego. Here's a complete list, but some highlights include Chad White of Plancha Baja Med, mixologist Jeff Josenhaus of Grant Grill, Jeff Rossman of Terra American Bistro, Stone Brewery, Blind Tiger Cocktail Company, Blind Lady Alehouse and Tiger! Tiger!, Wiens Family Cellars, Elizabeth Harris of Elizabethan Desserts, Norma Martinez of Chaplos, and Caffe Calabria.

Tickets are $50 ($45 for members) and can be purchased online.

Take a trip over to visit and you'll no doubt want to buy tickets to support this bay treasure.

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