- Embrace the aquatic life
Mote Marine Aquarium & Laboratory is a well-known and well frequented stop for locals and tourists alike. Aside from its primary research institution projects and aquarium exhibits, the organization offers a variety of behind-the-scenes educational programs. Mote recently invited me to visit the aquarium to get a taste of these special opportunities.
- Start the morning right
I was guided into the kitchen for a tour of the food preparation area, which is part of the "Morning Rounds" experience. This special tour gives visitors a look into what happens before the aquarium opens to the public (ages 10+, $40 per person or $35 for Mote members).
- Feeding time
As part of the morning rounds tour experience, my guide, aquarist Michelle, demonstrates the proper technique for feeding rays.
- Feeding frenzy
The enthusiastic rays caused quite the literal splash as they clamored for the shrimp we fed them by hand. They take the food from you by suctioning it up- but don't worry because the gentle creatures don't even have teeth. They crush their food with special plates after they suck up their snacks.
- Waving good morning
The cownose rays, which are extremely soft, are not particularly skittish about getting the food. They'll come right up to the shallow areas of the tank and even stick part of their bodies out of the water when maneuvering to get their breakfast.
- Suction method
It feels like a giant straw or vacuum comes over your hand when the rays take the food.
- Seahorse time
The aquarium offers a separate seahorse conservation lab tour with specialist Shawn Garner (note the awesome seahorse tattoo on his left wrist). He works to breed and sell seahorse species from around the world so aquariums will take fewer of these creatures out of their natural environment (ages 10+, $25 per person).
- Operation seahorse
On the right is a tank of circulating baby seahorses which are only a few months old. Behind on the left is a tank of adult breeder seahorses.
- Rare ribbons
These rare ribbon seahorses are native to the Australian coast, where they are considered sacred by the Aborigine people. Shawn is one of very few people in the world to successfully breed the species.
- Quite the camouflage
The color-changing seahorses have leaf-like decorations protruding from their bodies.
- Hanging out
The color variations among seahorses cover a wide range, from the darker brown/orangeish to lighter green-tinged hues such as this one.
- Fancy feeding this guy?
For those eager to get an up close look at Mote's sharks, the aquarium offers the shark encounter experience where three visitors at a time can help prepare and feed a morning meal to the sharks. During the tour, you can also see how Mote is enriching their environment through special training exercises using underwater targets (ages 13+, $45).
- Look and touch
You can touch some small marine life like horseshoe crabs and sea cucumbers at the Contact Cove touch tank.
- Meet the bonnet heads
These fast-moving bonnet head sharks look like they're constantly smiling at you with their open jaws.
- Our aquatic neighbors
This Coastal Waters exhibit has displays with several species you can find right in Sarasota Bay.
- Tropical friends
This reef exhibit in the main aquarium hall includes quite the colorful array of fish.
- Hold that pose
This spiny lobster was a photogenic model, staring intently through the glass as I snapped photos of the large crustacean.
- Graceful jellies
Sea nettle jellyfish look beautiful and peaceful in the tank, but when they come in contact with human skin, their sting can be incredibly painful (take my word for it).
- Waiting for visitors
These jellyfish had all just been fed when I photographed them, which was right before aquarium opening time.
- Flaunt that pattern
This spotted calico crab actually ignored the breakfast being offered to him so he was left alone to stare out of his glass tank.
- Not quite upside down jellyfish
Cassiopeia, such as the one pictured, typically reside upside down on the sea floor, allowing their purpleish tendrils to catch food for them. Although they have a sting, it's less intense than that of the sea nettle.
- Are you watching me?
The yellowhead jawfish was reluctant to completely emerge from its cozy hole under this shell.
- Eye-catching display
The flashy lionfish is beautiful but venomous. In recent years, the Pacific Ocean species has invaded Atlantic waters with sightings near the Florida Keys.
- That hermit life
Residing with the deadly lionfish is this solitary hermit crab.
- Teddybear of the sea
I spent far longer than necessary photographing the unique and rather cute cuttlefish. Like squid and octopus, the cuttlefish is capable of changing color. This helps it blend in for camouflage or send messages to other cuttlefish.
- And it gets better...
The flamboyant cuttlefish is the smaller and sassier variation of the species which comes in hues of pinkish purple and yellow. When I visited, they were changing color so rapidly that it looked like their bodies were rippling.
- Flamboyantly adorable
These tiny creatures are beautiful to photograph, but sensitive to flash.
- Don't forget to clean your teeth
The Caribbean cleaning goby in the photo had just emerged from cleaning the grouper's mouth.
- Real life Dory
Anyone who has seen Finding Nemo will recognize this blue tang as the species of the forgetful character Dory from the Pixar film.
- And there's Nemo
This tank contains a variety of clownfish, including pink, black and the familiar orange and black variations.
- All clean for visitors
An aquarist with a career-appropriate tattoo cleans out the sturgeon tank prior to the aquarium opening.
- Don't forget the Marine Mammal Center
This rare Kemp's Ridley sea turtle is one of several unreleasable residents at the Marine Mammal Center, which is located diagonally across the street from the aquarium. It plays host to injured wild mammals along with permanent residents, like the pictured turtle who has deformed front flippers.
- Hello Harriet
Harriet, who has vision problems and lives with manatees Hugh and Buffett, was named before the aquarium realized that she is in fact a he. Turtle's gender can be difficult to ascertain because it depends on slight difference in tail length (males tend to have longer ones).
- Waking up-slowly
The already slow-moving manatees Hugh and Buffett were reluctant to leave the cozy dark corner of the back of their tank.
- Meet Moonshine
Moonshine is currently Mote's only dolphin resident. The pantropical spotted dolphin cannot be released due to ongoing liver problems.
- Training day
Mote staff members work on enrichment training with Moonshine during a morning session.
Summer 50 #32: Mote Marine Aquarium
/ Monday, June 24, 2013