Sarasota’s swooping aquarium moves one step closer to reality

Rising Tides

Sarasota’s swooping aquarium moves one step closer to reality

TVSDesign will serve as the architect of record for the shiplike aquarium. (Courtesy Mote)

New renderings have been unveiled and a groundbreaking date has been set for Florida’s newest aquarium project, the $130 million Mote Science Education Aquarium in Sarasota County.

Aquarium leaders joined with elected officials this month to announce that they have raised $75 million of the $130 million needed to build the aquarium on a 12-acre site at Nathan Benderson Park, where Sarasota County meets Manatee County in southwest Florida.

The latest renderings show a curvilinear building evoking a ship, with special lighting effects on its exterior hinting at what’s inside. It’s meant to be visible from an estimated 43 million vehicles a year that pass by the site near Interstate 75 and University Parkway.

It was announced earlier this month that the Atlanta-based TVSDesign would be filling in as the architect of record, after preliminary design work was done by CambridgeSeven Associates. Sitework is scheduled to start by the end of September, with construction of the building beginning in April of 2021.

“It’s no longer a dream. It’s a reality,” Mote board chair Howard “Sam” Seider told a crowd gathered on the site of the aquarium’s new home.

“A major goal of this project was to create an iconic structure,” added Mote president and CEO Michael Crosby.

With 110,000 square feet of space and nearly 100 million gallons of water and watery habitats, Mote SEA will be nearly twice as large as the existing Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium on City Island that Mote SEA is being designed to replace.

The start of construction will come almost exactly six years after Sarasota’s City Commission, by a 3 to 2 vote, turned down a request by the Mote Marine Laboratory for land to build a new aquarium on the city’s bayfront, near the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, rather than outside city limits on the interstate.

At the heart of the new facility will be three interactive teaching labs that will be free of charge for K-through-12 students in Sarasota and Manatee counties, which are helping fund the project. The labs will focus on marine biomedicine, microbiology, and immunology; fisheries, marine ecology, and coastal ecology; and ocean engineering, technology, sensor development, and robotics.

Elsewhere, the aquarium will contain immersive exhibits showcasing sharks, manatees, sea turtles, otters, “coral reef species” and other creatures both from around the world and from nearby in the Gulf of Mexico. In general, staff operations and life support areas will be on the lower levels of the building and exhibits and teaching labs will be on the upper levels.

The exterior design was inspired by the ocean itself, according to a statement on Mote’s website. “The building’s unique design, rising into the sky like ripples on a calm sea, and outdoor features such as wetlands nature trails will stir curiosity, just as our oceans do.”

One of the oldest marine research centers in Florida, Mote Marine Laboratory was created and supported by the Vanderbilt family as a place to study the oceans and share information around the world.

The laboratory opened in 1955 as the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory in Placida, Florida, and was later renamed to honor benefactor William Mote and his family. Besides the main campus on City Island in Sarasota, it has field stations in eastern Sarasota County, Charlotte Harbor, and the Florida Keys, and its scientists conduct research on every continent.

Headed for many years by Eugenie Clark, an authority on sharks and fish known as “the Shark Lady,” Mote Marine Laboratory draws approximately 350,000 visitors a year and has 230 employees, 1,500 volunteers, and 10,000 members, Directors anticipate 700,000 visitors a year will come to the new building.

Mote plans to convert its City Island campus to an International Marine Science, Technology and Innovation Park, described as a “Silicon Valley”-type center for people working in the fields of marine science and technology.

Whiting-Turner Contracting Company and Willis A. Smith Construction are the builders. According to Mote’s website, a September groundbreaking will mark the start of site preparation work and site improvements. Construction documents will be complete by December and the building is expected to open by early 2023, depending on Mote’s ability to raise funds and secure the necessary construction approvals.