• Lisa Codianne Fowler

Finding Nemo

If you liked Finding Nemo, you’ll love finding Mote. It delivers all the drama and color that captured your imagination in the fun fish tale, but here, it’s real. Colorful reef fish, toothy sharks and sensational sea turtles swim right before your eyes. You can actually pet a velvety “Mr. Ray” at the Ray Touch Tray, and pick up a sea star like “Peach” in the Touch Tank; reach out and touch live crabs, sand dollars, sea urchins, whelks, conchs, tulips and clams.

Even more heartwarming than the Disney/Pixar animated film, which was “set” in the Pacific, is the heroism of Mote Marine’s scientists and volunteers who rescue and rehabilitate sick and injured mammals native to Florida. Thanks to them, real-life characters, like Moonshine the dolphin and Hang Tough the sea turtle, are alive and well at the hospitals here.

Meet local celebrities Hugh and Buffett at the Manatee Exhibit. Together, these gentle giants weigh 3,000 pounds — more than an automobile — and eat about 120 heads of lettuce, a day along with kale, carrots, beets, monkey chow and vitamins. Like other West Indian Manatees, they love to frolic underwater, doing somersaults, headstands and gliding upside down. These gregarious guys however, also play an important role in the study of this endangered species.

Mote Marine Laboratory is also deeply involved in shark research. This big fish appears here, live, as well as on camera. Shark Attack Theatre is a 12-minute multimedia presentation where you can learn, from a shark’s point of view, how it hunts for food and uses its powerful senses to survive. And the new Immersion Cinema lets you not only see the shark but be the shark, as the audience uses individual computer consoles to interact with the high definition movie-game, Predator/Prey. Face the challenges of working your way up the food chain in the underwater world … where it’s “either eat or be eaten.”

With fronds like these, who needs anemones? Anemones look like beautiful sea flowers but are really carnivorous animals that sting their prey before gobbling them up. A few fish, such as shrimp and clownfish, can safely go into the center of a sea anemone by disguising themselves with anemone coating. Mote Marine’s Aquarium features these creatures as well as puffer fish, sea horses, coral, jellyfish and more. And because Mote has so many trained volunteer docents, it’s a truly interactive experience, as you’ll easily find plenty of real people to answer your questions. Caring, personal attention extends to everyone from wide-eyed children to adults with varying levels of marine life knowledge. Since Mote Marine is a world leader in many areas of ocean science, there’s much to learn that’s leading edge, and it’s fun.

More family fun awaits on a Sea Life Encounter Cruise. You’re likely to have dolphins and manatees as your companions as you glide along sparkling Sarasota Bay and learn about the ecology, history and folklore of the area. Enjoy a short nature walk on an uninhabited island followed by a unique opportunity to view pelicans, herons and egrets in their nesting habitats. Your marine biologist guide will stop to scoop up some live treasures of the sea for observation and handling, a highlight for kids of all ages. Sarasota Bay Explorers works in conjunction with Mote Marine to provide this trip as well as organized kayak tours and private, customized cruises.

You’ll no doubt be hungry after your sojourn at sea. Pick up a light repast at the cafeteria and dine al fresco in the courtyard, where you can watch multi-hued tilapia and mosquitofish scamper among turtles in the lily pond. Stop in the gift shop, where you’ll find marine-themed books, clothing, jewelry, collectibles, posters, prints and more. Proceeds benefit Mote’s true to life heroes and real stars of the sea.

Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium is open daily, including holidays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is located at 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, on City Island between St. Armands Circle and Longboat Key. For more information, visit www.mote.org or call 941-388-4441.

Written by Lisa Codianne Fowler for and courtesy of VisitSarasota.com.

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