Exploring Gulf Gate: A world of wonder

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Local aquarium is visual extravaganza for lovers of cool creatures

By Jane Bartnett

Gulf Gate is full of places to discover. For those of us who are drawn to the sea and the creatures that live there and near it, a whole world of wonder awaits at the Seascape Aquarium & Pet Center.
Behind the doors of this 11,0000-square-foot menagerie I was delighted to find tropical fish in every color of the rainbow, chirping cockatoos, small rabbits, and Guinea pigs. Although I’ve never been a huge fan of reptiles, it was fascinating to watch a Bearded Dragon, turtles, and even a brilliant yellow non-poisonous snake moving about.

Rick Marot tends to a fish tank. (photo by Jane Bartnett)

Under the watchful eye of Rick and Charlene Marot, who have owned and managed the business since 1975, this is a special place. As Rick Marot led me through the store it was clear that he has a great passion for marine life and tropical creatures. A marine biologist by training, Marot served on Mote Marine’s advisory council for many years.
In a large room that felt more like a marine laboratory instead of a store, we paused to examine an array of coral in large tanks. “These are live coral,” he said. “We’re growing coral that will be incorporated into the reef tanks. Most of our coral is aqua-cultured. We’re helping coral to be reintroduced into the wild.”
Pointing out the different varieties that were moving and growing before our eyes, he explained the vital role that coral plays in the ecosystem and the importance of saving it.
When the Marots launched their business 45 years ago, they had just graduated from the University of South Florida and had recently married. After a trip to our area, “We fell in love with Gulf Gate and Sarasota” Marot said.

When they decided to open their store, the couple financed their new business with a legal settlement that Rick received from a near fatal 1973 scuba diving accident that took place under the Skyway Bridge. A spear fisherman hunting illegally from the shore for Goliath grouper mistook the tall 20-year-old, 180-pound Marot for the gigantic fish (that can weigh up to 800 pounds). The fisherman’s powerful spear sliced through Marot’s leg. Badly wounded and bleeding heavily, Marot pulled the fisherman who was attempting to reel him in into the water. After dragging himself to the shore, the wounded Marot was close to death.
“My NROTC (Navy Reserve Officer Training Candidate) training as a student at Tulane University saved my life,” he said.
Against all odds, doctors gave him his life back and also saved his leg. Through a grueling recovery, Marot learned to walk again. He also completed his college studies in marine biology at USF and returned to his part-time job at a Tampa aquarium store. When his boss offered him the chance to buy the store with money from his lawsuit, he declined. The couple had decided that Sarasota would be their new home.
“We fell in love with this place,” Marot said.
When they opened their store in Gulf Gate, Marot applied all the business savvy that he learned from his part-time college job. With $600 in inventory that included “fish and a few tanks,” they opened their doors. Rick was in the store each day. Charlene found a teaching job at the Gulf Gate School and at the end of each day, she joined her husband at their shop.
“We started small at first and got bigger and bigger,” said Marot.
As the business expanded, they rented a warehouse and the building next door. “We had two companies with 29 employees. Along with the store, the second business made artificial coral that we shipped all over the world. We were doing $3 million in sales. For 32 years, every year was better than the next,” he said.

Exotic pets are among the offerings. (photo by Jane Bartnett)

Then came the 2008 real estate crash. The Marot’s businesses were hit hard but they made it through and built back.
Today, Seascape Aquarium & Pet Center, located at 2162 Gulf Gate Drive, ranks as the largest aquarium business in the state of Florida. The Marlots also build and design small and large custom aquariums. Thanks to the growth of Sarasota’s luxury real estate market, demand for home aquariums and ponds has been strong.
“We get a lot of business from homeowners on Siesta Key,” said Marot. “Gulf Gate is the gateway to Siesta Key. We’ve also done many big jobs in Boca Grande and recently built a 500-foot-by-200-foot pond in Bradenton with 1.4 million gallons and a waterfall.”
Looking ahead, after 48 years of running his own show, Marot is ready to take a break, enjoy the beach, and sell his growing this niche.
“We’re not only the biggest aquatic store in Florida but also the longest-running store of its kind. This is a unique business in a high-growth area,” he said.
With a laugh, he added, “It just needs the right person to take it on for the next 48 years!”

Jane Bartnett
Author: Jane Bartnett

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