White jimmy blenny image december 1 jkhtoe

Come face-to-face with sea creatures on a Sea Life Encounter cruise.

Image: Jimmy White

Want to delve into the sea stars, stone crabs, sea horses and other amazing creatures that live in Sarasota Bay? Sarasota Bay Explorers’ 40-foot covered pontoon boats launch daily two-hour eco-tours from the docks behind Mote Marine Laboratory. (Sarasota Bay Explorers partners with, but is a separate enterprise, from the nonprofit marine laboratory.)

The hour-and-45-minute Sea Life Encounter cruise—suitable for all ages—putters into Sarasota Bay, where the marine-biologist guide looks for manatees and dolphins. The guide also lowers a big net that skims along the shallow bay’s sea grasses. (The company has a scientific permit to allow the net’s use.) When the net is raised, it’s filled with sea creatures that go into an onboard aquarium. “That’s where the fun starts,” says Tina Matthews, a Florida master naturalist with Sarasota Bay Explorers. The guide explains the creatures’ intricacies and passes each one around in a little container of seawater.

On a recent trip, equally fascinated 6-year-olds and seniors exclaimed over tiny starfish and a cowfish’s two little horns. “It’s like Christmas every single day; we never know what we’re going to get,” says Matthews. “It’s awesome to hear the squeals of joy.”

The boat also visits a nearby spoil island, Edwards Island, for a 10-minute stop to learn about native and invasive plant species. Then it motors to Rookery Island in Roberts Bay to see brown pelicans, roseate spoonbills, great blue herons, double-crested cormorants and more. Matthews explains that the birds—as many as 1,400 at one time—build their nests in November, and lay their eggs in December and January. When eggs hatch—April, May and June—it’s “loud, beautiful and colorful,” she says.

A separate eco-tour, Nature Safari, is “the next step,” says Matthews. “The guests get to be the biologists.” It features a longer nature walk through Ted Sperling Park on south Lido Key, and a boat trip to a sandbar where everyone gets a dip net “and gets to experience that joy of pulling something up amazing,” she says.

For more information visit sarasotabayexplorers.com.

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