Marine Mammal Stranding Center
For a generation now, the Schoelkopfs have run one of the East Coast's wonders, the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, which rescues and brings back to normal life dolphins, seals, and their water-based mammalian cousins.
Set in Brigantine, the center, run with grants and donations, answers the call whenever a whale, dolphin, seal, sea turtle, or other marine mammal beaches or is in trouble in close-in waters it is not used to. It has grown into a major enterprise, having rescued only a few mammals a year back in the late 1970s, when it opened, and nearly 200 a year these days.
Bob Schoelkopf said the warm waters of the winter have caused a fortuitous downturn in animals to be rescued. Last year, the center handled 122 seals, and by mid-June this year, the usual crisis time, it had rescued just eight.
"We had migratory patterns early," Schoelkopf said. "More animals got to pass through here and it was warm enough for them to have food on their way up north."
Schoelkopf said the new Atlantic Club Casino, the former Hilton, donated a 73-inch flatscreen TV, so visitors in the center can see what is going on in the rescue area.
There is a museum and gift shop area, showing what is native to New Jersey and why it is important to keep the environment safe for marine mammals. There is a monitor to see the quarantined mammals on their way to recovery - no visitors are allowed in the pool areas because the mammals are actually wild and would be dangerous around those untrained. The center is open for visitors daily except Monday. Admission is free but donations are accepted.
Located at 3625 Brigantine Blvd., Brigantine. Information: 609-266-0538, www.marinemammalstrangingcenter.org.
Cape May Bird Observatory
Pete Dunne is the guru of birding along the East Coast of the United States. Each Monday morning in the meadows near Cape May Point, and on Monday and Thursday afternoons along Delaware Bay, Dunne, the director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, takes novices and experienced birders through a sighting and photographic tour of one of the best birding areas in the world.
Since Cape May County juts out into the path of many species' migrating routes from as far away as South America and Canada and back, there seems to be no end of birds to see on Dunne's tours.
"So here is New Jersey jutting out. Birds have to go through right here," Dunne said of Cape May. "There is just nowhere better on the continent. And every day there is something different."
A recent Monday walk had everything from rare hummingbirds to two huge mute swans - at 25 pounds, according to Dunne, the largest birds that actually fly.
In addition to Dunne's walks, the Cape May Bird Observatory has guided boat trips and other walks in various areas of Cape May and Cumberland Counties. Fees are nominal and go to supporting the Observatory and New Jersey Audubon Society activities and educational efforts.
Located at 600 Rte. 47 North, Cape May Court House, N.J. Information: 609-861-0700, www.birdcapemay.org.
New Jersey Alpaca Farm
See a little slice of Peru at Barbara and Warren Nuessle's farm at Bay Springs, just a few miles from Cape May. Since 1999, the Nuessles have been raising alpacas there, both for the fleece and breeding for sale.
"We let people roam around the grounds. Some of the alpacas are friendly and like to be petted," said Barbara Nuessle. "They all like to eat carrots, so we encourage people to bring baby carrots to feed them."
The herd has grown to 35 in colors from fawn to black to rose gray. While you might not come and take away one of the long-necked beauties, you might still learn a bit about raising the animals, and how their fleece becomes yarn and fiber for things like rugs, sweaters, and blankets - which are on sale in the Nuessles' store.
The farm is open Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and by appointment. Located at 542 New England Rd., Cape May. Information: 609-884-0563, www.bayspringsalpacas.com.
Cape May County Park and Zoo
One of the real gems of the Jersey Shore, the well-manicured Cape May County Zoo has now upped its population to 500 animals. Two of the latest are its pair of snow leopard cubs, one male and one female, born in May at the zoo. There are only about 140 snow leopards in captivity.
The zoo opened in 1978, primarily as a barnyard exhibit, though it did have a lone African lion and a few primates. In the 1980s, though, it added more exotic animals, like black bears and antelopes and what became a longtime favorite, Jerome the Giraffe.
In the 1990s, 57 acres beyond trails through the woods became an African savanna, which now contains native African animals like zebras and savanna-ranging birds.
The zoo also has a reptile and amphibian house with 60 species, a walk-through bird observatory, and its celebrities - 13 flamingos from Michael Jackson's Neverland.
The zoo is open - donations accepted - every day except Christmas, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Located at 4 Moore Rd., Cape May Court House, N.J. Information: 609-465-5271, www.co.cape-may.nj.us.
The Wetlands Institute
Just off the busy Stone Harbor Causeway into that tony Shore town is the oasis of the Wetlands Institute, with exhibits, walkways, and educational talks and walks about marsh life in South Jersey.
In 1972, World Wildlife Fund executive director Herbert Mills got his friend, New Jersey's seminal ecological architect Malcolm Wells, to construct a "green" educational center on the outer land of 5,000 acres of marsh the fund had bought for preservation a few years before.
Mills felt that New Jersey's shoreline was threatened, and that he and his fellow fund members were "on the front lines" of saving it for the future. To that end, the Wetlands Institute has myriad programs, from weeklong children's camps to osprey nests viewed by long-range cameras to hands-on indoor and outdoor water wildlife walks and talks. The institute's annual Wings 'N Water Festival is next weekend, with evening family activities, fund-raising concerts, and a Friday night sunset cocktail and nature cruise in the bay.
General summer hours are Monday through Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $8 ages 12 and up, $6 ages 2 to 11. Located at 1075 Stone Harbor Blvd., Stone Harbor. Information: 609-368-1211, www.wetlandsinstitute.org.