Of all the wonders at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, kids seem to love watching sharks the most.
River otters, baby gators, tubby manatees, sea turtles and scary stingrays draw crowds, too.
But, the sharks – bonnetheads, hammerheads, nurse, blacknose and more, in the Shark Zone – are the superstars here.
No wonder the aquarium features a pretty vicious-looking shark on the cover of its brochures and on its logo.
That explains the 135,000-gallon shark habitat in the main aquarium, too.
At 11 a.m., every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, follow the crowds to the Shark Zone in the main aquarium to see the shark-training sessions and watch the creatures swim to specific places for food.
Who knew sharks could be trained?
Friendly, knowledgeable trainers answer questions and tell a bit about sharks in the wild. Hammerheads, they say, can live 25 to 35 years and pick up electrical pulses from all living things through electro receptors.
“Hammerheads’ heads are like metal detectors,” one trainer explains to a group of shark gawkers.
Behind the scenes, Mote scientists are researching why sharks and their cousins, stingrays, rarely get cancer. They’re hoping what they discover may lead them to human cancer treatments.
That’s one of the beauties of Mote – it’s both a marine laboratory and an aquarium, open daily to the public.
It’s a big place, divided into two areas across the street from each other, so plan plenty of time, and go on a weekday if you can. It can get very busy on weekends.
Depending on what you like to see, ask when feedings are scheduled, so you can see more action.
We started at the Marine Mammal Center across the street from the main aquarium because we wanted to see the manatee feedings at 1 p.m.
We often see manatees in the wild off the city pier in Safety Harbor. But, here you can see them so much better through the glass tanks, floating along and even swimming up to the glass, to stare at us staring at them.
Who wouldn’t be excited to see how adorable they are, with their huge eyes and round bodies that earned them the nickname sea cows?
When trainers throw them big heads of iceberg lettuce the giant creatures float around munching it while we humans take photos of them.
A few steps away, three sea turtles paddle around inside stone habitats. They were all injured in the wild and brought to Mote for rehabilitation.
Volunteers answer questions about them, and tell you their names and how they were injured. A young volunteer, wearing a blue Mote T-shirt, introduced us to Squirt 2, a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle who was hit by a boat propeller in the Peace River.
He said Squirt 2 has a broken jaw, so he can’t eat shellfish, his natural diet. The sea turtle will stay in the marine center where he’s fed and cared for by Mote workers.
The volunteer talked softly to Squirt 2, who looked up at him from his stone tank as if he was listening.
“You’re so lucky to work here,” I told him.
He smiled and admitted, “It’s a nice way to spend the day.”
Around the corner, three river otters – Huck, Jane and Pippi – frolic around a glass-enclosed habitat, swimming underwater for a while, then slithering out of the water onto rocks. At 1:30 p.m., trainers come out to feed the three, that, like the sharks, go to specific places to get food on command.
Like the manatees, they’re adorable and many kids were taking pictures of them with cellphones, as were the adults.
In other glass-enclosed habitats sat caimans, which are kin to alligators, and turtles. Sometimes, they’re replaced by gators or crocodiles.
We see gators all the time, too – they actually sit on our lawn by the pond behind our house. But, it’s still interesting to see caimans, which have stubbier snouts than gators and narrower bodies than crocs.
Upstairs, tanks hold other marvels, such as cobalt-blue Australian spotted jellyfish, snook, and displays on what Mote is doing to restore and conserve coral reefs.
On the way out, a sea turtle skeleton keeps guard from a circular display, looking like a giant, prehistoric alien.
Behind the scenes, and not accessible to the public, are sea turtle, dolphin and whale hospitals.
Back at the main aquarium, visitors learn about Florida’s coastal and freshwater habitats by looking at all sorts of displays of everything from living coral to a diamondback terrapin, clownfish, lobsters, a yellow moray eel, red grouper and blue moon jellyfish.
We especially liked the seahorse display, where we saw babies that were born on Jan. 30, then slightly larger babies born last November. A volunteer told us Mote sells seahorses to other labs to help reduce the wild seahorse market.
A temporary exhibit through June 15 features marine-inspired sculptures made from debris found along Oregon’s coast. Called “Washed Ashore,” it is an awareness-through-art initiative.
Mote has big plans for a new $130 million aquarium to be built starting next year on 5 acres, south of University Parkway off Interstate 75 in Sarasota. A fundraising effort is going on now for the 110,000-square-foot Mote Science Education Aquarium, which Mote officials say could be the “Silicon Valley of marine science and technology in Southwest Florida.”
They say the new aquarium, within sight of the interstate, will attract more Floridians and visitors to learn about marine life, while current facilities will give Mote more space for research labs.
Until then, visitors can enjoy the otters, manatees, turtles, and the ever-prowling, popular sharks at Mote’s longtime aquarium.
Mote Marine Laboratories & Aquarium
Where: 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, just north of St. Armands Circle
When: Open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily
Cost: Adults, $22; ages 3-12, $16; under age 3, free. Parking free
Details: Check out the Shark Zone, watch Manatees being fed, get a look at all kinds of sea creatures and find out about current research involving marine life.
Info: Call (941) 388-4441, ext. 416, or visit Mote.org.
Additional Mote Adventures:
- Sea Life Encounter Cruises, an hour-and-45-minute cruise in Sarasota and Roberts bays on pontoon boats; combo cost for the cruise and admission to aquarium: adults, $44; ages 3-12, $37. Cruise price alone: adults, $29; ages 3-16, $25. For details, call (904) 388-4200; visit SarasotaBayExplorers.com.
- Full Moon Paddles, the next one on May 29, are led by Mote educators. For reservations, call (941) 388-4441, ext. 348, or email .
- Other guided kayak trips, nature safari eco-tours, private charters are more options. See SarasotaBayExplorers.com.
Where to eat
- The aquarium’s 1950s-style Deep Sea Diner offers everything from burgers and hotdogs, to salads, wraps and fruit smoothies.
- Columbia Restaurant, 411 St. Armands Circle
- The Old Salty Dog, 1601 B Ken Thompson Parkway
- New Pass Grill & Bait Shop, 1505 Ken Thompson Parkway
Just off St. Armands Circle, at 55 S. Boulevard of the Presidents, visit the newest Clyde Butcher Gallery, where you’ll find limited edition, and signed black and white photographs of mostly Florida scenes by the widely known photographer.
By Karen Haymon Long
Published May 2, 2018