Sunday Favorites: The Vestiges of The Old Mote Marine

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For months, I've been paddling by a walled inlet on my paddle board that didn't look quite right to me. A little research revealed it to be the old Mote Marine shark tank once located near Midnight Pass in Sarasota.
Today, Mote Marine Laboratory encompasses 31 buildings in five locations including City Island in Sarasota, Pine Island, Summerland, and Key West. Together, these campuses make up 300,000 square feet of research and outreach space on 211 acres and include 1.8 million gallons of saltwater systems, according to a research paper, entitled "Mote Marine Laboratory, Exploring the Secrets of the Sea Since 1955" by Kumar Mahadevan.

But at one time, Mote was much smaller and was located on the beach at Siesta Key. The facility was near Midnight Pass, an inlet that no longer exists. Today, the easiest way to access the former location is via Turtle Beach, a public park with a boat ramp, kayak launch, and other facilities.

I visit Turtle Beach frequently. It's one of my favorite places to paddle board due to the scenic environment that not only includes a public beach, but also brackish bay and access to Jim Neville Marine Preserve and Palmer Point Park. It's home to beautiful seabirds, manatees, and other unique marine life. It's easy to see why it was once selected for the headquarters of Mote Marine.

On my most recent trip, a found what looked to be an old sea wall, but with an odd-looking opening in the middle -- almost like a door. A local tour guide confirmed my suspicion. The structure was not a sea wall but remnants of the old Mote shark tanks located at Siesta. The opening was the door where they were released back into the wild. I felt I needed to do some more research on the topic.

The origins behind Mote Marine all began with post-war funding and some inspiration from a marine biologist -- Dr. Eugene Clark, aka The Shark Lady.

During the 1930s two other nearby research facilities gained notoriety among scientists, one operated by the American Museum of Natural History located on Palmetto Key in Lee County and another that was a non-profit, known as Bass Biological Laboratory in Englewood. While their focus was on the study of Florida ecosystems as a whole, they greatly contributed to the creation of Mote. In fact, the Bass family collaborated with Dr. Clark and her mentor, Dr. Breder, to start Cape Haze Marine Laboratory, which was later named Mote Marine.

In 1955 the circumstances aligned to start a facility in Sarasota. As marine research was a need Americans supported and the government was willing to fund -- especially when it was defense-related.

Well-known philanthropist Ann Vanderbilt read Clark's book, "Lady with a Spear," and its description of a research facility in Egypt. She became fascinated with the idea of opening a facility on the west coast. Ann's husband William owned 36,000 acres in Placida. He had originally purchased the land to develop into a fishing village, but the interest just wasn't there. She saw Ann's research facility as a way to authenticate his vision and promote his expansion project, which he named Cape Haze Development. William approached Clark about building a facility like the one in Egypt, or as he described, "just a place where people can learn more about the sea," according to Mahadevan.
A year and a half later, Dr. Clark, her husband, and two baby girls moved to Placida to begin the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory. The lab consisted of a one-room building on skids (so it could easily be relocated) with a sink and a few shelves for specimens. Outside was a dock and the Vanderbilt's personal boat Dancer, which Dr. Eugene was free to use whenever she needed.
Tune in next week to learn how Dr. Clark transforms her one-room cabin into a state-of-the-art research facility.
Reader Comments
Misty Servia
NOV 23, 2022  •  That was one of our teenage hangouts on the weekend nights, and we would often have a bonfire inside the old tank as we sat around the tank wall. A great hang out.