by Karen Rubin and Neil Leiberman
Sarasota, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, was a sleepy fishing village when circus impresario John Ringling recognized its potential as a beach resort and made Sarasota the winter headquarters for the Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus. Decades later, visitors delight in a destination that is so much more than a typical beach resort.
Our first day in Sarasota was spent amidst pristine nature, at Myakka River State Fair; the second immersed in culture and heritage, at the Ringling Museum. Our third day is devoted to the beach and the marine world. Here, too, we are in for surprises.
We don’t have to go far – just a few steps from the door at our “cottage” at Sandpiper Inn www.sandpiperinn.com) – but Sarasota offers many other ways to engage in the marine world. And so we head to the Mote Aquarium.
The Mote offers a distinctly different experience from most aquariums. Sure it has displays of fish, coral, anemones, jelly fish. But what makes it special is that it turns out to be one of the foremost marine research laboratories in the country, particularly in the work being done on sharks, it has a dolphin research program (where you can peek in), offers a truly extraordinary interactive Immersion films where you participate via computer, and is the base for a program of eco-tours by boat that you can join. And just across the parking lot is a seabird rehabilitation center.
Indeed, what started as a one-woman operation in 1955 by the now-famous shark researcher, Dr. Eugenie Clark, has evolved into seven research centers home to more than 230 staff members, including about 40 Ph.D. scientists. Mote, it turns out, is a bigger marine research laboratory than even the famous Woods Hole Laboratory on Cape Cod, and the Monterrey, California facility.
Dr. Eugenie Clark, known as “shark lady” who at the age of 89 still comes to the lab every week, was the first scientist to ever document that sharks were capable of learning such tasks. She began training sharks back in the 1950s and was able to demonstrate how adaptable sharks really are. Until Clark told the world about her efforts, sharks were thought of as mindless eating machines.
The work with sharks that scientists are doing here might actually make a breakthrough in the treatment of cancer in humans, a docent explains while we are waiting for one of the Immersion films to begin.
Cancer in humans? A study conducted at Mote, accepted by Medical Society in last couple of months as accurate, he explains, is based on the fact that sharks are born with eight particular cancers in their systems. Humans also are born with cancers. But somehow, the shark is immune from cancers growing. Studying why that is can lead to a cure for cancer, “very possibly from marine biologist here at Mote.”
We are sitting in this auditorium waiting for the Mote’s unique attraction to begin: an interactive film experience where you have your own computer console and engage with what is happening in the film.
The technology was developed specifically for Mote and as far as anyone knows, the Mote is the only place to offer it.
There are two different Immersion experiences, and if you only have time for one be sure to see the Dolphin Rescue.
This interactive experience is based on real science, with much of the filming done right in the bay, but creates a fictional story (using renowned actors who play their parts as scientists and a local reporter,) in order to educate about the hazards facing marine mammals today. All of us become volunteers who engage in the search for a dolphin mother and her calf. It was actually as thrilling as it was interesting.
The second Immersion experience is Shark Predator which is structured as an 18-minute competition designed to give you a better appreciation for what it means to be part of the food chain, where plankton is at the bottom, and sharks are at the top (kids will like it better than adults).
Within the aquarium, there is a large pool where you can see sharks and if you time it right, take advantage of a new program of Narrated Training Sessions with Sharks (at 11 am. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, free with admission).
Much of the Mote takes place in separate laboratory buildings, most of which are closed to the general public, but you can visit the Marine Mammal Research and Rehabilitation Center, and watch scientists working with dolphins.
Take time to stroll across the parking lot to the seabird rehabilitation center, Save Our Seabirds (SOS). Most interesting is the Sandhilll crane project, where they fit injured birds with prosthetic legs.
From the Mote Aquarium, you can join an Eco Boat Tour, interactive marine experiences on the water, offered by Sarasota Bay Explorers). In one of the programs, you go out on a 40-foot pontoon covered on top, with a marine biologist, to look for dolphin and manatee, visit rookery islands, and get a hands-on experience, touching various (safe) marine life that is drawn out with a net, like seahorse, batfish, chocolate chip sea cucumbers, and get off the boat to walk on an island with the naturalist. There is also a Nature Safari Cruise, a guided three-hour kayak tour into mangrove tunnels on Lido Key, and private charters. (www.sarasotabayexplorers.com).
At Mote Aquarium’s newest attraction, Fossil Creek, visitors get to play marine paleontologist – and take home natural buried treasures of the sea. You can buy a bucket of sand and sift out hidden fossils using a sieve in a mini waterway. You might find shark’s teeth and stingray tails smoothed with time, ancient gar scales or bony plates from pufferfish mouths. The fossils are real and are yours to keep, along with the bucket. Fossil Creek is located in the Mote Aquarium courtyard behind the Ray Tray ($5.99).
You will likely be here long enough to work up an appetite, and the Aquarium is fairly isolated – but there is a charming retro ’50s-style diner, Deep Sea Diner (www.mote.org/DeepSeaDiner).
Plan to stay at least 3-4 hours. General admission includes access to Mote Aquarium, the Ann and Alfred E. Goldstein Marine Mammal Research and Rehabilitation Center and Immersion Cinema. (Adults/$17, Seniors/$16, Youth 4-12/$12.
Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, FL 34236, 941-388-4441, www.mote.org.
From Mote Aquarium, we head to Siesta Beach, on Beach Road on Siesta Key, and we soon see for ourselves how it has earned the reputation of being one of the most beautiful beaches anywhere in the world – at the “Great International White Sand Beach Challenge” held in 1987, it was recognized as having the “whitest and finest sand in the world.”
True enough, we find a broad expanse of powdery, fine white sand, with one of the most magnificent settings anywhere.
We learn from a lifeguard that the reason why the sand is so special is that, unlike most beaches that are formed mostly of coral, the sand at Siesta Beach and Crescent Beach on Siesta Key is 99% quartz. Formed over millions of years, it originated in the Appalachians and flowed down the rivers and was eventually deposited on the shores of Siesta Key.
Even on the hottest days, the sand is so reflective that it feels cool underfoot.
Shallow water depth in the near shore area together with year round lifeguard protection, makes this one of the safest beaches in the County and great for small children, and has earned Siesta Beach accreditation as a Blue Wave beach.
The facilities are wonderful, and there is even entertainment scheduled at a pavilion area.
The beach’s amenities also include tennis courts, ball fields, beach volleyball, soccer field, 20-station fitness trail and playground equipment.
On this winter day, when there is still a cold snap and the water temperature is 56 degrees, there are just a few people out and about taking in rays and enjoying the crisp clear air. But Spring Break, people are everywhere; and the beach can get 15,000-20,000 people a weekend.
Although there are 800 parking spaces, you better get there early if you want one. If you’re staying on Siesta Key, there are plenty of public access points to the beach so it’s a short walk from most of the north end of the key. Unfortunately, beyond the fire station near the intersection of Midnight Pass and Beach Road, the next public beach access south is near Stickney Point Rd. When looking for accommodations, be sure to ask about beach access as many of the properties on the east side, (odd number addresses), of Midnight Pass Rd. do not have beach access (www.4sarasota.com/siestakey/beach.html).
Biking Legacy Trail
From Siesta Beach, we head out to the Legacy Trail, a paved dedicated biking trail that stretches a dozen miles from just south of Sarasota (off Clark Road, at Rte 72), down to Venice, following the former CSX railroad corridor, where it ends at the historic Venice railroad station. (There are rest stops along the route, www.scgov.net/legacytrail/default.asp).
Because it is already late afternoon, though, we drive to Venice, intending to ride the trail north. Our plan is frustrated because it turns out they are still building the trail’s bridge over the busy Route 41, but we nonetheless have the most magnificent ride, just as the sun set, by the historic railway station, now a golden color, and along a canal, and then down to Venice beach in time to see the sky aflame with the sunset.
Then serendipity takes over, as often happens when you travel. We walk in to a chocolate shop to get a cup of coffee, and because it isn’t ready, wander down the street, come upon TJ Carney’s (231 W. Venice Avenue, 941-480-9244), where the Dixie Spirit Jazz Band plays Thursdays, from 6:30 pm.
Monday, 28 February, 2011
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