Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Up Close with Danica Sanborn

Animals don’t wear wristwatches, but you wouldn’t know it from their sense of anticipation as feeding time approaches at Sandoway Discovery Center. This is when the nature center’s resident cownose and Atlantic rays, its nurse shark and its variety of colorful reef fish indulge in their daily dose of squid or frozen shrimp, to the delight of human onlookers.

On a recent Tuesday, it’s all business for Norma Jean, the 150-pound shark, as she swims methodical laps around the perimeter of her recently installed pool in Sandoway’s backyard. She shares the space with angelfish, lookdowns and an obscenely cute pufferfish, who, like all pufferfish, thinks it’s the star of the show, its tail a whirring propeller on the water’s surface.

By 1 p.m., a small crowd has gathered for this near-daily ritual. Alyssa Dorfman, Sandoway’s director of education, feeds the rays first, their wavy forms descending on the shrimp in a frenzy, the swiftest swimmers capturing most of the spoils. It’s the same with the reef fish in the adjoining pool, but, belying its pop-culture reputation, Norma Jean turns out to be the gentlest of noshers.

Like a well-trained dog, the shark only comes when called, swimming to Dorfman only when she dangles the squid by the steps of the pool. She practically eats of Dorfman’s hand. The scene is effectively a teaching moment for Sandoway, an illustration that the overwhelming majority of sharks are not monsters to be feared; they’re a vital part of our global ecosystem.

As executive director, Danica Sanborn (pronounced Da-nee-ka), 46, has led the nature center’s efforts to spread this message for the past 10 years. A New York native, Sanborn earned her undergraduate degree in zoology at SUNY Oswego and her master’s degree in marine biology at Nova Southeastern University. She’s stayed in Florida ever since, first as a naturalist for Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation and then moving up to the top position at Sandoway, which she says is “really where I was meant to be.”

As a building and an institution, Sandoway has a storied history well predating Sanborn’s tenure. Its address on A1A is a 1936-vintage cottage on Delray’s beachfront originally built for J.B Evans, a retired produce broker. Samuel Ogden, architect of Old School Square, designed the house in the Resort Colonial style popular during the Great Depression. Its breezy open-air balconies are still enjoyed by visitors, and the Dade County pine floors still creak pleasantly underfoot.

Since 1998, when Sandoway opened to the public, the former living quarters of Evans’ clapboard house have been home to a wide array of nonhuman inhabitants: tree frogs, toads, turtles, snakes and an axolotl in the Reptile and Amphibian Room; eels, colorful fish, corals and anemones in the Reef Room. A former bedroom is now the Nocturnal Room, home to animals whose wounds prevent them from being released into the wild, and whom visitors may “sponsor” by contributing to the costs of their ongoing care. These include Coot, a screech owl.

“He was hit by a car and had a broken wing,” Sanborn says. “It’s not healed well enough where he’d be able to fend for himself out in the wild. Now he’s here, and he teaches people about why we should conserve him and conserve his habitats.” At the time of this writing, Coot has no neighbor, as Sandoway was in-between opossums. (A sign on the empty opossum cage read “Stitch has crossed over the rainbow bridge.”)

On Sandoway’s front porch, a gopher tortoise enjoys a sizable tank all his own, while its resident gold and blue macaw, Mr. Crystal, carries on conversations with visitors when the mood strikes him.

The backyard, where the sharks and stingrays swim, represents the newest extension for Sandoway—a $300,000 expansion that opened in November 2022. For Sanborn, grant writing for projects such as these consumes much of her time, alongside maintenance and upkeep of the property, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Most of the direct contact with Sandoway’s 30,000-plus annual visitors is left to its tiny but hardworking staff, which includes just three full-time employees and a handful of part-timers. But Sanborn is reminded of Sandoway’s impact every day.

“I love the idea of making a difference in young people and giving them the opportunity to learn something they may never have had the chance to learn,” she says. “Many of our kids who visit here have never seen the ocean, so to give them the chance to see a shark or touch a stingray, that will stay with them, and hopefully make them stewards of the environment moving forward.”

This article is from the March/April 2023 issue of Delray magazine. For more like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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