What prehistoric sea creature has the head of a horse, the tail of a monkey, and the pouch of a kangaroo, and lurks right here in the shallow bays of Southwest Florida? You’ll find that quiz on page 23 of my new book, “A (mostly) Kids’ Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands and the Fort Myers Coast,” among other bizarre factoids that kids love to learn. The answer? A seahorse! But wait - there’s more! In the seahorse world, the daddy has the babies!
Plenty more shocking things go on in the romantic lives of sea creatures, as we discovered recently on a day trip to Sarasota’s Mote Aquarium. “Oh, Baby! Life Cycles of the Seas” is all about where marine babies come from. Don’t worry, Mom & Dad, it’s a nice clean family exhibit. And oh, baby, the things you’ll learn! Did you know, for example, that a baby seahorse is called a fry? That’s where the term “small fry” comes from – not from a fast food potato!
One especially giggle-worthy thing about watching these seahorses: with such tiny fins to navigate around, even slight water movement bobs them sideways and upside down. And they look so very unconcerned about the whole thing. They use their monkey-like tails to grab onto a bit of coral or sea grass as they bob by.
You need at least two hours to enjoy all the aquarium’s exhibits and visit the creatures in the Main Aquarium and the Marine Mammal Center, including close-up viewing of otter babies Huck, Pippi, and Jane chasing each other around in the new river otter habitat.
Plan to stay longer if you want to try some of the special experiences at extra cost, like helping the staff chop up lunch and then feed the full size sharks in the Shark Zone (for ages 13 and up), or hunting for ancient sharks’ teeth in the Fossil Creek sand trough (for the younger ones).
As for us, our next stop will be 20 miles south to Venice Beach, “Shark’s Tooth Capital of the World,” to find our very own fossilized treasures in the wild. But first, we head over to watch Hugh and Buffet, Mote’s resident assistant scientists, enjoying a little lunch. Okay, a lot of lunch. These approximately 1,500-pound fellows are actually manatees, and boy do they love to eat their vegetables. Together, they chomp down about 120 heads of romaine lettuce and 12 bunches of kale, along with carrots, beets, and apples every day. While their table manners aren’t perfect, these brothers are the only manatees in the world trained to participate in research projects to help Mote’s biologists understand their endangered species. And what personalities! They’re definitely posing at the giant viewing windows for the kids’ cameras as they munch away. To learn more, call 941-388-4441 or visit mote.org or Hugh and Buffet’s web page: isurus.mote.org/hughbuffett/.
Venice: The Hunt for Sharks’ Teeth
In prehistoric times, when Florida was still beneath the sea, this area was teeming with sharks. One shark can lose 10,000 to 20,000 teeth during its lifetime. After millions of years, all those teeth and shells left a layer of fossils up to 30 feet deep around the Venice coast. Cool news for us: The tides just keep uncovering them.
At Caspersen Beach Park, the outdoor shower pad and walkways are imbedded with thousands of sharks’ teeth. We’re psyched! Tooth-hunters are knee-deep in the water with their official sifters, flat metal colanders on sticks, nicknamed the Venice snow shovel. It’s clear from our Naples-style long-handled shelling nets that we’re not from around here.
We sift through the coarse gray-flecked fossil sand near the water’s edge for about two hours, and our reward is 14 treasures, including some extinct megalodon teeth. A few are whole and still sharp. Most are the size of a child’s thumbnail. We’ll add these to the larger teeth collected in previous years, and we’ll dream of the really huge one we’ll find on our next trip up the coast. Maybe we’ll even invest in a Venice snow shovel.
The Southwest Florida Connection
Mote Aquarium is part of the Mote Marine Laboratory, and showcases its work as an important research center as well as a rescue and rehabilitation facility for sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and other creatures. Mote’s scientists also are working toward saving our dying coral reefs, and even investigating new cancer and infection-fighting substances from the sea. Mote Marine biologists often work with local Southwest Florida organizations like the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in Naples and The Dolphin Study on Marco Island. To be part of a local dolphin research project, have a great family day on the water and maybe even name a baby dolphin, visit Dolphin-study.com.
KAREN T. BARTLETT is Travel Editor of Neapolitan Family. She is the author of 11 destination travel books, and publisher of the award-winning book, A (mostly) Kids’ Guide to Naples, Marco Island & The Everglades.