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Ocean on wheels

Star urchins tickled the fingers of the curious students brave enough to reach into the cool water to touch them.

Floral City Elementary School students were recently visited by the mobile unit of Sarasota's MOTE Aquarium, which brought with it dry displays, a 1,200-gallon saltwater aquarium and the contact cove. This was a shallow tank where the children could put their hands (and in some cases hair and shirts) into the water to touch conchs, sea stars, sea urchins, bivalves, gastropods, crabs and a horseshoe crab. Reactions ranged from "e-e-e-wwww" to "I wanna touch that!"

Exhibit coordinator Glenn Markos brought four aquarium volunteers with him to this first visit of the display to Citrus County.

The aquarium in the side of the truck contained colorful fish and crustaceans that mesmerized the children trying to spot the Atlantic spadefish, the gold saddle goatfish, the Cuban hogfish, the Caribbean blue tag, the Spanish lobster, the giant hermit crab, the blue angelfish and the bigeye.

"That one has a big, huge eye," was an observation from when a child spotted the appropriately named fish.

Another child jumped back from the display when the spadefish swam by. "I'm scared of that," the child said.

Kimberly Stafford, 7, a first-grader, was particularly impressed with contact cove. "I like that where you get to touch things, because if you're really curious and you like to touch things, you can touch 'em. Children are sometimes curious."

Another first-grader, Jacob Holbrook, 7, seemed to have gathered an interesting assortment of information. He said he learned "that fish can have bad tempers. Sharks have big teeth and the Cuban hogfish has yellow and red skin."

Other exhibits included a dried sea star and a squid in a clear case. There was a sea turtle display that showed how hatching baby turtles look under the sand. There were shells, a shark's eye moon snail, a lightning whelk and a cowry, a sand dollar, a giant hermit crab shell and a lobster.

The traveling MOTE show does many events, Markos said. They travel to festivals, schools and community attractions. "We go all over the state," he said, "Tallahassee to Key West." The exhibit is part of MOTE's motto: "Excellence in marine research and education."

Kindergartener Lane Wilson, 6, thinks this kind of education is good. "They come to schools for fun to look at," she said. "I think the other kids liked touching those fish. I like the starfish."

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