"There's a classroom out
here,"Mr. Aguilar relates.
"It's 105 acres. In that
classroom we have
a planetarium, a museum
to talk about underwater
science, space museum,
and a tremendous number
of different organisms."


Discovering the Earth,
Exploring the Sky

by Julie Clay

IMAGINE A PLACE where you can both view Florida wildlife in their natural habitats, then learn about the world above us from a state of the art planetarium show? Look no further than the Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium (CNCP) in Fort Myers. Some 47 years old, the 105-acre nonprofit had fallen into a state of disrepair and disregard. However, recently installed Executive Director Larry Aguilar (the Center’s first E.D. in three years) and his team are out to freshen the place up and re-establish it as one of Southwest Florida’s premier attractions.

Coming from a political, banking and nonprofit background, most recently running Dunbar’s Quality Life Center, Aguilar’s resume might not necessarily fit the stereotypical image of a nature center director, but he brings with him solid business practice experience, as well as the relationships he’s forged in the local community. With those he intends to rebuild interest in the Center via increased field trips, volunteer numbers and paid memberships. A good fixin’ and exciting events are also currently in the works.

A recent conversation revealed the excitement he and his staff have for the Center.

“There’s a classroom out here,” Mr. Aguilar relates, “It’s 105 acres. In that classroom we have a planetarium, a museum to talk about underwater science, space science, and a tremendous number of different organisms in the earth. We don’t use pesticides here. Without chemicals, the wildlife and organisms here have a chance to flourish.”

He continues, “Some of the trails have a shell coating, but the largest trail here is totally wild. It goes the circumference here, which is vast. You can see that the birds here can flourish. The hawks are massive. We have a huge owl. Sometimes I’ve been walking out to the parking lot and its perched on a low branch.” Maybe the owl is waiting around to visit its friends in the new aviary?

Although other aviaries offer an up-close and personal experience, this one will be for viewing only,” says Aguilar. “Although visitors will not be able to touch or feed the birds, there will be bird enrichment activities to benefit both the birds and the visitors,” adding that they maintain birds that can’t survive in the wild on their own, some of whom have been domesticated their whole lives and welcome human interaction.

“We have had over 47 species of birds at one time or other come through our doors by way of injury or donation from some individual. CNCP serves as a sanctuary for birds of prey in support of the Audubon Society,” says Aguilar, noting that the short list includes eastern screen owls, great horned owls, bald eagles, red shouldered hawks, crested caracara, and two species of hawks. The Center also works in conjunction with CROW (Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife) on Sanibel Island for wildlife rescues.

Nature education is also of primary importance to Aguilar, who notes that the Center’s Iona House, a one-room building with roomy, vaulted ceilings, is home to a Montessori Preschool beginning this year.
From pure Florida nature to high-tech stargazing, the Calusa Center is intent on offering a full range of educational pursuits. View the iguana exhibit built as an Eagle Scout project, walk the boardwalk and enjoy the alligators in their natural habitat, then head indoors to the Planetarium for an astral show.

A former NASA employee and professor at FGCU and the Air Force Academy, Planetarium Director Heather Preston is an astronomer passionate about sharing the wonder of the stars, and eagerly does so daily at the Calusa Planetarium. Three shows run daily covering various astral topics, and each show begins with a live orientation as to what is happening in our local night sky. Visit Calusanature.org/planetarium for a complete schedule.

The Planetarium also presents Laser shows several times each evening the last two weekends of each month, set to classic rock music by acts such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Jimi Hendrix, but Aguilar hints at a possible Michael Jackson/Motown-themed show being planned.

Preston shares news of Casini Day, happening on September 15 at the Planetarium. “Cassini is a probe circling Saturn whose mission is complete,” she says. “On the 15th it will dive into Saturn’s atmosphere, transmitting data the whole way down. Results should be available around then.”

Then there are the UFO’s each Sunday. To be precise, UFO at this juncture stands for Underground Freak Out, and it’s the brainchild of local electronic musician Frank Ferrante, aka Randombongoguy. He performs at the Planetarium on select Sundays playing experimental music while a planetarium show runs simultaneously. Word has it he enjoys using citrus fruit as instruments. Shows are free. You can hear samples of his music on Randombongoguy’s Facebook page.

With October 31 fast approaching, the Planetarium will host a Halloween laser show with Beetlejuice and other fun, slightly scary, subjects. Speaking of scary, the annual CNCP Haunted Walk returns nightly from October 19-31, from 7-11pm. Aguilar promises new attractions for this year’s walk.

Once at the Planetarium, don’t miss the newly installed “A Touch of Mars” exhibit. Preston explains that the exhibit contains an actual meteorite broken off by Mars that landed here. It was found in the Sahara Desert and scientists have verified its origin. The meteorite is one of only four in the entire country. The rock is quite small, but visitors can actually touch it.

Aguilar says, “We have a responsibility to show children what’s out there. A lot of the technology that we use today, some of it was developed when space exploration was at its highest point. I think that we need to ignite that sense of discovery and exploration in children to want to know more about the possibilities and being creative. In doing so, there will be some discoveries to advance humankind.” •

The Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium is a nonprofit organization, receiving no city or county funding for their operations, relying solely on admission fees and donations. Aguilar notes that their premier fundraising gala, ‘Return to Nature’ is November 17 at Belltower Shops’ center court. CNCP is located at 3450 Ortiz Avenue in Fort Myers, just off Colonial Blvd. Call 275-3435 for information.

September-October 2017