Suggested Trip

Delmarva Discovery Center & Museum: An “Otter” Gem Hidden in the Eastern Shore’s Friendliest Town

 

While the warmer months entice thousands of tourists to flock to popular Eastern Shore ocean beaches, the cooler, quieter seasons offer visitors an incredible opportunity to explore some of the many off-the-beaten-path opportunities for adventure in this coastal region. Just 45 minutes south of the hustle and bustle of Ocean City, Maryland and a mere 30 minutes north of Chincoteague, Virginia lies charming Pocomoke City, the “Friendliest Town on the Eastern Shore." At the heart of the town, nestled alongside the beautiful Pocomoke River, the Delmarva Discovery Museum features a simple sign out front: “Awesome Museum, Awesome Gift Shop!” Truly, this hidden gem is indeed “awesome” in every way, providing a day of delightful surprises for every one of my visiting troupe of travel mates ages three to… “Don’t Ask Grandma’s Age."

The Delmarva Peninsula, or simply Delmarva, is a 170-mile peninsula occupied by Delaware and the Eastern Shores of Maryland and Virginia. Dedicated to fostering an appreciation for the natural and cultural history of the “DMV,” Delmarva Discovery Center & Museum is a “living museum,” a place quite literally thriving with life for visitors of all ages to discover hands-on the natural and cultural wonders of this fascinating region.

Entering the museum, we were greeted by President and CEO Stacey Weisner who graciously offered to take us on an insider's tour. The 16,000-square-foot museum houses entertaining, interactive exhibits, live animals, living laboratories, an expansive touch pool, classrooms, and a world-class museum store. The immersive and engaging exhibits take visitors on a journey through Delmarva, beginning with Native American culture on the peninsula dating back over 12,000 years. Just inside, watercolor drawings by English artist John White (c.1540-1606) depict the daily life of Algonquin-speaking men, women and children, the most informative illustrations of a Native American Society on the Eastern seaboard. We soon encounter a wigwam Indian shelter and a dugout canoe. The canoe, on loan from Chief Norris Howard and the Pocomoke Indian Nation, can sit up to 5 men and uses just a single piece of timber – an impressive feat, crafted patiently through multiple rounds of controlled burns and carving with shells.

Directly across from these displays is a model cypress swamp, a fascinating ecological feature of the Pocomoke region that can be explored on foot or by water – an adventure well worth your time. Moss-covered, knobby roots called “cypress knees” rise from dark waters stained by leaf tannins.

The swamps and forests of the DMV are home to a dazzling array of creatures great and small, and the museum showcases a variety of these fascinating critters. Living exhibits feature grey and green tree frogs, toads, and several snake species. If you’re not a big fan of our amphibious and reptilian brethren, you can duck into the adjacent giant beaver lodge, a lifesize replica of an actual beaver lodge. Kids and kids-at-heart can crawl through the two entrances that are normally underwater and enjoy a unique beaver’s-eye view of a lodge from the inside.

If aquatic mammals are your thing, you have definitely come to the right place! The museum’s main attraction is a 6,000-gallon aquarium hosting celebrity otters Mac and Tuck. Funded by a Maryland Heritage Area grant and generous donors, the Wally Gordon River Otter exhibit was constructed by builders who worked on Smithsonian installations, featuring tiered seating for demos and a wheelchair ramp lift for prime viewing. Mac and Tuck were originally wild residents of Louisiana who made a reputation for themselves notoriously pillaging a crayfish farm. Fortunately for them, the farmer called the USDA to relocate the thieves instead of taking more lethal measures. The museum took them in and now these two are so spoiled they turn their noses up at crayfish unless they are steamed, and have such a disdain for vegetables they periodically throw them at the trainer.

Otters in captivity can live 20 years, so ensuring they are kept active, healthy and intellectually stimulated is critical. In addition to a water slide, daily enrichment involves a variety of toys and activities to enhance their skills and senses, including training them to press their noses to a target for feedings and to accustom them to submitting calmly to regular exams. After a fascinating educational talk by Education & Program Coordinator Ashley Thierfeldt, we were offered the incredible opportunity to go behind the scenes to feed Mac and Tuck (albeit through a barrier since otters, although cute, have razor sharp teeth and claws and we didn’t need to end our fantastic adventure at the hospital).  Education programs and public feedings are held daily at noon; Otterly Silly Saturdays are held every Saturday at noon; visit Mac and Tuck’s Instagram page for fun daily updates.

Turning the corner from the playful world of Mac and Tuck, we find ourselves walking alongside a re-creation of a 19th century wharf, complete with barrels of goods to be “shipped,” including oyster shipping containers from the 1880’s and, at the press of a button, an entertaining narrative by a resident waterman describing wharf life at the turn of the 20th century. Thanks to a generous grant from Perdue, this area will be expanded in early 2020 to showcase the agricultural trade of the Eastern Shore as well, featuring a giant grain silo, interactive and accessible tractor simulators, and more.

Just a few steps away towers an impressive re-creation of a two-story, late-19th century steamship.  Stepping inside, visitors can enjoy the luxury of the stateroom, peruse the captain’s quarters, peer inside the coal pit and even steer the ship. With the support of a Maryland Heritage Area grant and donors, access to the second level of the ship via chairlift will soon be added. From this second level, visitors have a panoramic view of the rest of the museum below: a decoy shed featuring hand-crafted waterfowl decoys and carving tools of the trade; an adjacent boat shed displaying models of skiffs, bugeyes, canoes, and skipjacks; and a 12-foot CAT boat offering kids the chance to don a life jacket, climb in, work the tiller, and even make the sail billow with a button-activated wind machine.

Disembarking, we were just in time for a snapping turtle feeding by volunteer extraordinaire Paulette Smith (whom we had met earlier as she wandered the museum with a corn snake draped across her arms). At 15-years old, “George” sports a misshapen shell, the result of malnourishment during his previous stint as a family pet, but he couldn’t appear more delighted at his present circumstances. While sometimes left to his own devices to catch “wild” fish in his aquarium, George is target-trained to recognize feeding time, which he demonstrated to the audience with snapping enthusiasm.

Adjacent to George’s tank is an enormous touch pool featuring a variety of animals that inhabit the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays. When Education & Program Coordinator Kelsey Allen offered my three-year-old nephew the opportunity to feed a horseshoe crab, he jumped at the chance…and when I realized how horseshoe crabs actually eat, I was equally excited! A horseshoe crab picks up food with appendages located in front of its mouth…which happens to be in the center of its underside. Kelsey gently flipped the crab over and handed my nephew a large pair of tweezers which they used to feed a chunk of fish to the crab, giving the impression they were playing a bizarre version of the game Operation. After several enthusiastic rounds of feeding, and petting an eel or two, we concluded our critter time joining Kelsey across the hall in the Richard Henson STEAM Classroom & Lab where, flanked by tanks of aquatic turtles, several children sat happily on the floor handling an Eastern box turtle.

Thanking our incredible hosts, we concluded our visit with a stop in the museum gift shop. Unlike your average overpriced and underwhelming museum shop, we were delighted at the unique and affordable selection, including a beautiful array of items by local artists, authors and artisans. We were reminded upon exiting that visitors can continue exploring even outside the museum:  The Discovery Nature Trail (featuring a cypress swamp), the Sturgis One Room School House, and the Historic Mar-Va Theatre, all within walking distance (not to mention a lovely stroll alongside the river just yards away.) I cannot emphasize enough what a surprisingly wonderful time we had exploring this hidden gem, and this constantly evolving museum promises to offer return visitors something new to discover each time.

The Delmarva Discovery Museum offers a regular schedule of programs, tours, and presentations to families, classes, youth groups, and other visitors, including a spacious science lab for lower shore schools that have no lab at their school, and a partnership with Assateague 4th graders. Located at 2 Market Street, Pocomoke City, MD,  the museum is open Mon-Sat 10am-4pm, Sundays 12pm-4pm. Admission: Adult (18+) $10; Seniors (60+) & Students (with ID) $8; Military (with ID) & Youth (4-17) $5; Children under 3 FREE. Facility rentals available. Gift shop open to the public.

Delmarva Discovery Museum

The Delmarva Discovery Center on the Pocomoke River serves as a source of learning and discovery for the public through the preservation and interpretation of its cultural and natural heritage.

Julie Dieguez

A lifelong Marylander who grew up “gunkholing” around the Chesapeake Bay with her family, Julie Dieguez has worked for nearly two decades in environmental education with a variety of organizations including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Chesapeake Bay Program, No Child Left Inside, and more. She now specializes in developing outdoor classrooms, nature play and learning areas, and therapeutic outdoor spaces for kids. Julie enjoys exploring, writing, kayaking and camping with her family including two rescue dogs.

December 30, 2019

Main image: All photos by Julie Dieguez
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