Jackson County

New family attraction tucked away in Ocean Springs is 'like a treehouse with bounce'

It's almost like a treehouse with bounce, and it's the part of the newest family attraction opening in South Mississippi this weekend.

The pedestrian suspension bridge at the Marine Education Center in Ocean Springs was the hit of a ribbon cutting held Monday for dignitaries.

Kids, other than those who already visited the center on a field trip, get their first step on the bridge during Community Day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

This isn't one of those playground-variety bouncy bridges — it's 208 feet long, almost 5 feet wide and made of galvanized steel, said Martin Walz, one of the owners of the Seattle Bridge LLC, which builds bridges all over the country.

Most of their bridges are in remote place places, he said. Although the Marine Center is tucked away under the trees on 100 acres at Cedar Point and seems secluded, It's just a short distance off U.S. 90 and adjacent to Gulf Islands Seashore National Park.

Those first few steps seem like walking across a normal bridge, but part way across the bridge gets sway.

"It's a dynamic bridge. It's made to move," Walz said, and he likens the movement to walking on a ship in calm seas.

"This is what makes it an experience in itself," he said as he watches people discovering the bridge that spans a gully and connects the two areas of the center. "People stop. They engage nature," he said.

All the bridge parts were fabricated in Seattle and shipped to Ocean Springs. Few trees were cut at the site and already branches and leaves extend through the wire cables that support the bridge. In a year, he said, people will ask, "How did they get all the trees in there?"

During the process of preparing the site, lifting the single tower and stringing the cables the crews found items strewn there by Hurricane Katrina nearly 13 years ago. One of those things was a doll they named Katrina, and Walz III said, "She became our mascot for the project."

A 'quantum leap' from the old

University of Southern Mississippi's new Marine Education Center replaces the JL Scott Aquarium in Biloxi that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. It is a quantum leap from that Biloxi aquarium, said Gordon Cannon, vice president for research.

The center is designed so children and adults can learn more about the coastal environment and the work at the Gulf Coast Research Lab. It's also designed to make learning fun.

On one side of the bridge are outdoor classrooms with barely-there walls to let in the natural surroundings and screens to keep out the bugs.

On the other side is the visitors center, with interactive digital displays including NOAA's Science on a Sphere and an augmented reality sandbox, where people can shape a mountain or a river bed, then make it rain or flood, said staff member Erin Douglas. Or they can build a volcano and see lava pour down.

There also are boardwalks and a dock where kayaks will launch. And there's a conference center, complete with a prep kitchen and outdoor kitchen, which can accommodate 120 people and can be rented for private meetings and events.

More eco-fun on the Coast

"It just blends with nature so beautifully," said Captain Louis Skrmetta, who ferries kids attending the USM Sea Camp to Ship Island every year on Ship Island Excursions.

Along with the Gulf Islands Seashore National Park, Pascagoula River Audubon Center, the Mississppi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge and other natural attractions, he said this makes Jackson County a powerhouse for nature-based tourism.

This is one of two multimillion dollar projects being completed by the University of Southern Mississippi.

The bright white Marine Research Center on U.S. 90 near the entrance to the Port of Gulfport will open soon, and "That is strictly for the scientists," said James Skrmetta, spokesman for the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.

The $12 million facility is being built for the new Ocean Engineering program at the university and will have laboratories and classrooms designed for students and researchers to study the oceans and then go out onto the water. The Point Sur research vessel is docked at the port and its discovery missions will be planned at the new facility, he said.

If you go:

What: Community Day at new USM Marine Education Center

When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, April 21

Where: 101 Sweetbay Drive, Ocean Springs, at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory's Cedar Point site. Use main entrance to Gulf Islands National Seashore off U.S. 90 in Ocean Springs, across from Ocean Spring Hospital.

Details: Free event with guided tours of the new campus and hands-on activities for all ages.


Mary Perez: 228-896-2354, @MaryPerezSH