Marine biologist Brian Rayburn empties the contents of an otter trawl into a large cooler filled with water and begins sorting through the tangle of marine life just retrieved from the Gulf waters off Sarasota, Fla. He picks up a garlic sponge, breaks off a small outgrowth and invites me to take a whiff, so I can discover for myself how the sponge got its name.
If You Go:
Sarasota Bay Explorers, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, City Island,
(941) 388-4200, www.sarasotabayexplorers.com
Mote Aquarium (941) 388-2451, 1-800-691-MOTE, www.mote.org
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, 4150 S. Suncoast Blvd., Homosassa, (352) 628-5343, www.floridastateparks.org/homosassasprings
I inhale deeply. It smells fishy, but with a definite garlic flourish.
The garlic sponge is only one of the highlights of the hour-and-45-minute pontoon-boat cruise offered by Sarasota Bay Explorers. Also included in the "sea-life encounter" are a short hike through mangroves and Australian pines on uninhabited Edwards Island as well as a pass by a trio of tiny islands collectively known as one of the largest nesting areas in the entire Tampa Bay region. (We see dozens of water and wading birds in the mangroves: great egrets, great blue herons, brown pelicans.)
As we discover, the boat trip isn't the only opportunity to explore the wild side of Florida's west coast.
Sarasota Bay Explorers' ticket counter and docks are located on the grounds of Mote Aquarium, where the standout exhibits include a 135,000-gallon shark tank, a preserved giant squid and two "touch pools" — one containing rays, the other an assortment of critters ranging from sea urchins to hermit crabs. A short walk away is the marine mammal building, which houses a pair of endangered West Indian manatees and a half-dozen sea turtles, among other things. Try to show up around noon, when the manatees slowly but surely begin putting away 72 to 90 heads of romaine lettuce each day.
Located 75 miles north of Tampa is the 210-acre Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, where visitors can check out exhibits of native Florida wildlife — everything from alligators to flamingoes — from elevated boardwalks. A floating observatory provides an up-close-and-personal view of injured and orphaned manatees in the park's rehabilitation center. Manatee and wildlife education programs are offered daily in a setting that, like the pontoon-boat cruise and aquarium, provides more excitement than a day at the beach.