Photos by Kelsey & Scott Walters
Living in a peninsula like Florida, we are surrounded by water and ocean life, but it’s rare that we get to see the animals beneath the waves face-to-face. The Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota combines adventure with education to provide the opportunity to meet hundreds of marine species from in and around our coastal communities.
Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium – Sarasota
A trip to Mote makes for an exciting day for all ages. Scott, Avery and I visited and were equally enthralled with the experience. Scott gravitates towards the educational and interpretive exhibits, while I enjoy watching and interacting with the animals like the otters and manatees. Avery loves anything she can get her toddler hands on, so touch pools and interactive exhibits are her jam.
Parents of younger kids will likely be familiar with PBS Kids’ popular educational program, “Wild Kratts,” which takes children on wild adventures throughout the animal kingdom studying various species and their specific “creature powers.” Now through June 6, the Mote is offering a special exhibit called Wild Kratts: Ocean Adventure, geared towards helping kids ages 3 through 9 to build STEM skills. Little explorers can tour the ocean in the Kratt brothers’ Tortuga headquarters while learning about various sea life. They can “activate their creature powers” and learn what it’s like to lunch like a lobster, crawl through an anemone, communicate like a dolphin or explore the deep sea with bioluminescence, all through highly interactive activities.
Year-round, you can find an abundance of exhibits featuring animals from Florida’s bay habitats, rivers and coastal waters to get a closer look and learn about the locals. There are also a few things that you certainly wouldn’t come face-to-face with in the wild (or at least you really hope not). The exploration gallery, adjacent to a thrilling virtual reality “underwater” experience, features Molly – a preserved 27-foot-long giant squid that was accidentally caught in a fishing net off the coast of New Zealand in 1999.
A dive into the shark zone lets you inspect preserved great white shark specimens up-close. You can size yourself up to a megalodon jaw fossil as well as life-size mural. You can also get a bird’s-eye and underwater view of the huge shark tank, swirling with various species of rays, sharks and large fish. Dip your fingers in the ray pools to pet the gentle creatures as they glide by, or touch a (understandably much smaller) shark in the baby shark pool.
What really sets Mote apart from other aquariums is that it doesn’t just serve as a family outing destination. At its heart, Mote is a marine research laboratory conducting hundreds of programs on-site and at field stations around Florida. Their lab and aquarium, first established in 1955 as a foundation of shark research, employs over 200 people including more than 30 Ph.D. scientists.
The work conducted at the Mote has benefits not only coastally, but worldwide, as they look into coral health, marine conservation, animal rehabilitation, and even why sharks and rays don’t get cancer and how that can be implemented into healthcare. Your visit to Mote doesn’t just fund animal care – it fuels the ideas and vital research that could help make the world a better place.
Because of this mission, the aquarium also serves as an animal hospital for many creatures as well as a permanent home for those who will never be able to be released. Take a quick stroll across the street to the other half of the campus, and you can visit some of the turtles rescued by the team, including Hang Tough – a blind turtle as the result of severe head injuries. The resident manatees, Hugh and Buffett, were Avery’s favorite to interact with, as they swam back and forth to look at her and smoosh their snouts against the glass (pictured above).
She chose a stuffed manatee to take home from the gift shop and was thrilled to race back across the street and show Hugh her own mini version of him (pictured below). These two are the only manatees in the world specially trained to participate in special research projects to help in the understanding of how manatees navigate and understand the world. Their special role really shows through their silly and charismatic personalities.
I could have spent hours watching the three resident otters wrestling each other in their pool and gleefully sliding down their waterslide. Avery fittingly renamed them “swimmy puppies” and they certainly live up to the moniker as they glide underwater and put on a show with backflips and spins.
One of the cutest exhibits is “Oh Baby!” where you’ll find the younger, mini versions of some of your favorite sea critters like seahorses and jellyfish. As part of their research, conservation and repopulation efforts, Mote breeds and raises many marine species. This also gives the public a chance to glimpse into the animals’ life cycles, including mating rituals and maybe even some live births!
Not only did our trip to Mote fill our day with wonder and fun, we gained a better understanding and appreciation for the underwater world that surrounds us here in Florida.
Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium
Hours and Admission:
Open daily from 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Adults: $24; Children (3 – 12): $18; Children 2 and under free
COVID-19: Tickets are sold in advance with a 15-minute arrival window to stagger admission. Masks are required indoors and outdoors for everyone ages 5 and up.