No scuba equipment necessary

Gray’s Reef comes to life virtually at Tybee Island Marine Science Center

Updated June 16, 2021 at 3:45 p.m.

A new exhibit at Tybee Island Marine Science center allows visitors to virtually visit Gray's Reef."
Imagine being submerged in water, surrounded by 200 species of fish varying in color and over 1,000 species of invertebrates, while simultaneously watching the branching corals swaying in the current. Believe it or not, this underwater wonderworld is closer than you would think.

Just 70 feet under the water and 20 miles off of Sapelo Island, Gray’s Reef occupies the water. This hidden treasure is so close to us without many realizing it. For most of us, we may never get down to see the beauty in person— but no need to fret — the reef is being brought to you.

“The idea is that you can’t protect something you don’t care about unless you know about it,” said President of the Board of Trustees for Tybee Island Marine Science Foundation, Cathy Sakas. “You’re not going to know about it and you’re not going to care about it unless you can see it, touch it, breathe it, smell it, or hear it. The way to do that is through modern technology — to bring virtual reality to people —so that’s why we have these exhibits.”

The exhibit includes a touch screen, inviting people to learn more about fish, the sea turtles that are offshore and even Great White sharks. Those checking out the exhibit will get the inside scoop of what the reef looks like, what sea life populates it, and how it has all changed overtime, thanks to photo documentation.

With a space five times bigger than the old one, the crew hopes for new faces to come not only explore, but also to learn about what lies beneath the surface.

“Our mission is to protect, conserve, educate. We want to have stewardship in the end. We want anybody that comes through here to feel that this is their coast, this is their science center, this is their place — their ocean, their global ocean,” Sakas said. “We want them to have stewardship of it. Take ownership of it, take responsibility of it. That’s what we’re after.” For one who has dived on Gray’s Reef several times, Sakas said the virtual exhibit does a pretty good job, comparing it to what she has experienced firsthand. But, the reef is not just about the sights seen —it’s also about the sounds heard. “The video is what seals it; that really gives you the visuals that you are at Gray’s Reef,” Sakas said. “Now, the only thing that you’re missing is the pressure of the water [and] you breathing through your regulator, but you also hear the marvelous sounds,” Sakas said. “The ocean is not quiet around a reef. It is not quiet. It sounds like the snapping shrimp — like a bowl of Rice Krispies, the ‘snap, crackle, pop.’ That’s what’s going off all over the place. There’s thousands of these things.”

The fish and toads will also join in. Even dolphins will add to the symphony of sounds. Does anyone else picture the “Kiss the Girl” scene from “The Little Mermaid” or is it just me? “I’ve been pounded by their echolocation, they’ve echolocated me,” Sakas said. “You feel it and you’re like ‘What? Oh, it’s a dolphin!’”

This exhibit is another addition to their new Science Center located at 37 Meddin Drive. on Tybee Island. Sakas said a new center has been a dream of theirs for 20 years. After gaining popularity, they made the dream a reality. She calls it the “education hub.”

“We want Tybee to be seen as a place for families,” she said. “So by moving our center up here, we’ve got a really nice flow: you can go to Fort Pulaski, then you can come to the lighthouse, then you can come to Tybee Historical Society’s museum, and then you can come to the center and then you can go to the beach.”

Their capital campaign is to “Bring the Outside In” and the building does just that, especially being able to hold and touch some of the animals yourself. For someone who didn’t grow up near a beach—let alone hold a sea creature — this building truly connects visitors with the ocean’s gifts. This is a place for all people, including the 98-year old residents, to feel like a kid again, even if for a moment.

“It’s just wonderful,” Sakas said. “If you can touch a living animal and know that it’s safe to do that, and that they’re going to be protected, that has a huge impact.” Sakas said by having this center and the exhibit, it brings to life how what we do everyday affects our ocean one way or another.

“It’s really important to know what our coast is all about and Gray’s Reef is an integral part of it that people aren’t aware of and they should be aware of because they affect it everyday,” Sakas said. “Whatever you put down your sink; whatever you put down your toilet; whatever you put on your yard— all of that eventually works its way into the watershed and will get into the ocean and affect Gray’s Reef. It affects the inshore water, too. We all need to be responsible.” Being able to hear stories from Sakas herself about the reef in addition to the virtual exhibit is truly a treat. The “Swamp Goddess” herself said, “ … no matter how much you go down there, you can’t see it all.”

To learn more about the new center visit

Published June 16, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

Jamie Burton

Jamie Burton is a journalist and music enthusiast, originally from Upstate New York. She graduated from Penn State in Broadcast Journalism. Check her out on Connect's "What are We Doing?" weekly podcast.
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