Living on the Gulf Coast of Florida, there is no shortage of ocean life seen while boating or fishing. Mote Aquarium, located on City Island near mainland Florida, provides the consummate experience of ocean life within a museum setting for anyone who appreciates ocean biology.
Mote Aquarium’s main building is home to many varieties of fish, coral, an octopus, and a preserved squid. The inside of the building seems dark on the inside, but that is meant to simulate the depths of the ocean where the sealife feels most at home. Sturgeon, colorful tropical fish, lion fish, and jellyfish can be observed by all ages in the aquarium. Watching the jellyfish alone floating up and down in a cylinder-shaped aquarium more closely resembles a halogen lamp than something that might be lurking beyond a coral grove on the ocean floor. Lion fish, which are exquisite but toxic with their fin rays, are quite beautiful to look at. Mote also has a tank full of jellyfish at several different stages of development. Crawfish are in yet another tank next to the jellyfish. Just beyond the main room is a second room with more aquariums full of smaller sharks such as sandbar and blacknose. Do not forget to see the stingrays, another fascinating fish related to sharks but have a much flatter body. After enjoying the fish, stop for a bite to eat at the Deep Sea Diner, modeled in the style of a 1950’s diner. The menu includes salads, hamburgers, chicken burgers, shakes, sodas, and bottled water. Don’t forget to stop by the gift shop after eating to look at the wide selection of jewelry, toys, plush animals, books, and aquatic decorations for your home or office.
Upon exiting the aquarium, the walk to the building where the mammals are located is well marked with colorful images of turtles and manatees decorating the sidewalk. Inside, the first exhibit is a green turtle named Hang Tough due to the hardship he has experienced: being blinded by a fishing hook in one eye, plus head injuries which resulted in losing sight in his other eye. He feels safe in the aquarium after being nursed through the rehabilitation program there. Because he is blind, though, Mote decided to keep him instead of releasing him back into the ocean where he might have difficulty in fending for himself. Hang Tough is far from being alone in a tank by himself, for he has company with other fish and rarely goes a day without attention being given to him. There are many other varieties of sea turtles living in more aquarium tanks, from the very small to very large in size.
Without a doubt, the two manatees named Hugh and Buffett are perhaps the best part of More Aquarium. Like dolphins, these mammals of the sea are very friendly and enjoy the company of humans. I recall watching manatees swimming up the canals in West Palm Beach many years ago where they would mingle among the boats and in some cases, get mangled by the propellers of the boats for swimming too close. Manatees are an endangered species and related to elephants. At Mote, Hugh and Buffett happily swim in their tanks, periodically coming up to the glass and press their noses against it, as if to “smooch” visitors. These gentle giants are herbivores who munch on aquatic plants with their small teeth.
A walk up a flight of stairs brings the Mote visitor to the dolphin pool. Moonshine the pantropical spotted dolphin is another main attraction who must be seen before leaving museum grounds. Living on the second floor of the mammals building in an Olympic-sized pool, Moonshine is a trained performer who can retrieve practically anything tossed to him, choose a solid colored pool ball, and of course do leaps and spins. Dolphins cannot actually “see” colors but they can detect shades of gray, thus the exercise using red, blue, and yellow balls by the trainer. Watching Moonshine closely observe a red, yellow, or blue ball then swim to the opposite short end of the pool to and point to the same colored ball being held by another person holding three balls of different colors is impressive indeed.
To get to Mote Aquarium:
Take I-75 to Sarasota and get off at the Fruitville Road exit. Head west on Fruitville until you reach Tamiami Trail. Turn left on Tamiami Trail at the light. When you reach Gulfstream Road, head onto St. Armand’s Island. Drive through St. Armand’s Circle and follow State road 179 until you reach Ken Thompson Parkway. Go directly onto the Parkway and follow the signs that say Mote Aquarium. The main building is on the right side of the road with ample parking.