With Isabella Bono-Evans, Documented by Krystle Bono — A perfect option for beating the summer heat mid-beach day, Toms Cove Visitor Center on the Assateague Island National Seashore brings a nice, cool way to spend an afternoon hour while the kids can learn about the history of the refuge and its many animal inhabitants.
The visitor center is located on 8586 Beach Road, Chincoteague. You have to travel to Assateague and enter through the Wildlife Refuge (note: as mentioned in our previous column, to enter the refuge, you must have a pass, which can be purchased at the gate for $20 weekly or $40 for the season) and drive all the way down to the beach. It may take you a few minutes to get down there, since there are a few pull-off spots for visitors to stop and check out the wildlife–we have even spotted ponies on our way in during the morning. Once the beach in is view, the visitor center will be on the right, and is the last stop before the beach parking lot.
The center is open to the public daily through November, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and it is completely free to enter, which is another perk for families traveling with lots of littles.
Toms Cove Visitor Center has a ramp that takes you up to the deck and front entrance. Isabella was excited to get inside so she could meet the animals that were housed in the touch-tank, but while en route to the entrance, she was drawn to the viewing telescopes that were positioned outside on the deck, so she took some time to look through those and vigorously tried to locate where the ponies were hiding today, since we didn’t see any on our way in. We did, however, spot the herd off in the distance on our way out, which made her pony-loving day. Also along the deck are plaques, much like the ones we found at the Robert Reed Waterfront Park, giving us some interesting historical tidbits from the types of boats used in the area for aquafarming, to some of the nature seen while on the deck.
There are two doors going into the facility, and we entered through the back, which put us right at the touch tank. During our visit, which was later in the afternoon, there was a small crowd gathered around the tank, so we patiently waited–actually, I patiently waited while Bella im-patiently stalked the tank for her opportunity to squeeze in once a spot opened–and I looked at the other exhibits. It’s a small studio-type building, so I was able to look at other things while still being close enough to Bella to have eyes on her.
Once she saw her opening, she took it, and thankfully for us, everyone cleared the area a few moments later, so we had the tank to ourselves, briefly. She instantly dipped her arm in, but then realized she couldn’t quite see what she was trying to get. The water is a little murky, so it’s best to look through the glass first to see where the animals are situated and then dive in, because there are two horseshoe crabs in there, and you definitely want to steer clear of their tails!
Bella started with the larger of two whelks. Whelks look like conchs, but are actually very different, as whelks are carnivores and prefer colder water, and conchs are herbivores and prefer more tropical environments. They were huge. She had never seen the animal that takes up residence in the shells she collects, so she thought that was the neatest thing to see the slimy, slug-like creature that was hiding inside. She held the shell very still up over the water for a few minutes to try and see if it would come out. (Note: There are signs stating that when touching the animals, you must hold them over the water. We did notice people taking them out away from the tank, as well as dropping them back in, and all of that is absolutely not okay. Visitors are reminded that these are living beings, and should be treated as such, and with care.) After holding the whelk steady for a few minutes, it decided to slide its way back out so she could see it. She gingerly put it back in its home, and then checked out the clams, mussels, and finally, the horse-shoe crabs. She had only seen one that had died on the beach, so she has never gotten to be up close to a living one. Bella loves animals, but she was a little hesitant about picking up this guy by herself, between the tail and not wanting to hurt it. They weren’t the easiest to get ahold of and were trying to wriggle away. You have to pick them up with two hands, and this is instructed on the sign, so, once I got it, we kept it out long enough for her to pet and admire for a moment before we returned it to the tank.
Once we finished at the tank, we dried our hands and moved on to the fish tank beside it, and then to view the rest of the center. Another highlight of the venue is the “Treasures of Assateague” sand box, which is along the right wall of the center, and for kids to do a treasure hunt of their own and dig through the sand to find the items that are listed on the wall and match to what they are finding. Bella enjoyed that as well, and learned a lot of new things by seeing the different parts of the animals close up.
Also in the visitor center is a rang-er-staffed information desk, lots of brochures, a book and souvenir gift shop, a board with daily ranger-led activities, and calendars of what is happening around the islands by the front entrance. This is definitely a nice spot to take the kids during your daytrip to the beach and Bella highly recommends venturing inside to learn and meet the marine life that live in the surrounding waters!