How to Spend a Day at Mote Aquarium
Marine creatures, great and small, make an appearance at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium on City Island, right across the street from The Old Salty Dog. From the hypnotic lull of sea anemones to the bones and bodies of giant sea creatures left to myth (a giant mollusk and megalodon shark jaws), the place is fascinating in the truest form of the word: bewitching and enchanting.
As Jacques Cousteau wrote, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” Such was the case for Mote’s founder, Dr. Eugenie Clark, whose first encounter with sea life was at an aquarium in New York City’s Battery Park when she was just nine years old. The pioneering scientist and educator, whose research on sharks brought her international recognition, eventually became known as the “Shark Lady” and founded what would become Mote in 1955.
The research side of Mote—the laboratory—is involved in improving our global knowledge of sea life, but it also keeps us informed locally about topics like red tide and the best ways we can care for the sea turtles that call our beaches home—some of whom witness their first days of life along our shores as they scramble to the Gulf waters in summer.
The aquarium, which is open to the public, holds a kind of magic, too. Every time I visit with family or friends, our camera or phone batteries run dry—we just can’t take enough photos.
Mote will ultimately move to a new, 12-acre location in Nathan Benderson Park, which will be built to accommodate up to 1 million visitors a year. There will be plentiful new exhibits, with 1 million total gallons of animal habitat, offering hands-on teaching labs, onsite dive programs, and expanding research facilities greatly. (Great news for penguin lovers: 12 to 16 Humboldt penguins from South America will make their home in the new aquarium.)
In the meantime, a visit to Mote's current City Island location is easy to do in a day or even a half a day, with a stint at the beach after. A morning at Mote could lead to a late lunch at the Old Salty Dog or the New Pass Grill and Bait Shop—great spots to watch the sunset over dinner, too. Of course, there are many additional experiences at Mote that could extend the day’s experience—from kayak tours to larger boat trips that take visitors around the bay and might be the best way to get to know our local waters. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a chance to witness a dolphin chasing schools of fish against a sea wall or a gentle manatee peacefully floating through Sarasota bay. For smaller additions to the day, the virtual reality experiences are fun and short.
It’s hard to narrow down a list of what not to miss here, but here are some things to look forward to.
What to See in the Main Aquarium
Location: There are three of these, two in the main aquarium building's inner courtyard and one more across the street in the Marine Mammal Center, on the second floor, within the "Oh Baby! Life Cycles of the Seas" exhibit.
The stingray pool is in the central courtyard between the large aquarium and the megalodon jaw. Some of the rays are surprisingly soft-skinned, while others have a sandy coat. The stingrays have different personalities, too, just like humans. Some are more introverted, while others swimming near the edge within reach.
Don't miss the chance to touch one of the oldest creatures in existence, the horseshoe crab, in a nearby touch tank in the courtyard. The third touch tank is across the road in the "Oh Baby! Life Cycles of the Seas" interior exhibit. The epaulette sharks are small and spectacularly spotted.
The Octopus and Jellyfish
Location: The Indoor Galleries of the Main Aquarium.
In preparation for encountering this octopus, I'd recommend watching the film My Octopus Teacher. If you arrive early enough, you might see Mote's octopus's immense intelligence working out an enrichment puzzle.
The jellyfish here are mesmerizing, too. In fact, everything in this first gallery is striking, from the sea anemones to the cuttlefish hiding among the rocks. You might even spend the most of your time here. Save a bit of your camera battery for the rest of the place, however.
What to See in the Marine Mammal Center
Location: Just to the right in the courtyard, across from the sea turtles.
This is fun for everyone. Even your most disaffected teen will love these three otters, who appear to be the best of friends. Imagine yourself as a child with your favorite people and unlimited play. These otters exemplify that level of joy and freedom. These three were all orphans and so were named after famous literary orphans: Huck, Pippi and Jane. FYI: river otters are different from sea otters, which are twice the size and are the ones you see cracking the clams on nature shows.
Buffett and Hugh, the Manatees
Location: Just beyond the sea turtle exhibit.
Here you will encounter Florida's most charismatic species. These peaceful creatures are having a hard time right now; more of them died in 2021 than any other year on record. As Dr. Eugenie Clark said, we need to "keep the water and their habitats as clean and protected as possible.”
Buffett and Hugh are half-brothers who will bump their snouts against the glass of their tank, as if to say hello, when they're not otherwise engaged in munching on the romaine lettuce that floats around for them to eat. According to Mote, these are the only manatees in the world trained to participate in special manatee research projects designed to help us understand how manatees perceive their natural environment.
Scientists at Mote learn more about manatees each year. When I took Mote's eco-boat tour this summer, I met a young researcher who was just about to set out to study the sensitivity of the tiny hairs, called vibrissae, that cover their bodies. Most recently, they've been learning about manatee call and response sounds.
Mote is open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. For more information call (941) 388-4441 or visit mote.org.