Kumar Mahadevan knew about Mote Marine Laboratory in 1970, when he was a 21-year-old marine biology graduate student in India. But many Sarasota residents didn’t know about the institution in their own backyard.
Mahadevan knew Mote as a leader in ichthyology —the field of zoology that focuses on fish — and shark research. He had read Mote “shark lady” Dr. Eugenie Clark’s 1969 memoir, “The Lady and the Sharks.”
In 1975, after finishing his Ph.D. in oceanography at Florida State University and moving to Anna Maria Island, Mahadevan drove out to Mote, then located on Siesta Key.
“I had to stop for directions,” he said. “A lot of people had never heard of Mote.”
Today, 360,000 visitors find their way to Mote annually.
Approximately 22,000 K-12 students learn from Mote’s digital and on-campus programs.
An army of 1,665 volunteers, clad in aquamarine polo shirts, give more than 206,000 hours of their time each year.
That’s in addition to the work of 192 staffers, 31 of whom are doctoral-level researchers.
After 27 years at the helm of it all as Mote’s president and CEO, Mahadevan announced last week he will retire in May. Dr. Michael Crosby, the laboratory’s senior vice president for research, will take on the role of president/CEO as Mahadevan serves as president emeritus for at least two years, according to a Mote prepared statement.
Under Mahadevan’s leadership, Mote “sprung from a little hut in a little lab,” according to Clark, who still conducts shark research at Mote.
“I don’t think anyone else could have handled this tremendous growth that we’ve had in the last 20 years,” Clark said. “All of us are intense in our own little projects. He has taken over and become the heart and soul of this little laboratory.”
In his early days as CEO, Mahadevan talked to garden clubs, civic groups, women’s organizations — anyone who would listen to him talk about Mote. That hasn’t changed in 27 years.
Today, he lobbies local, state and federal politicians, but still attends Mote’s volunteer coffee each month to speak.
In his office, a drawing of Mahadeven steering a boat with the title, “Capt. Kumar: Savior of the Sea,” by Virginia Sanders, a Mote volunteer of more than 30 years, hangs next to an autographed newspaper photo of his sons meeting famed former FSU football coach Bobby Bowden.
“I’ve observed him for the past 16-and-a-half years now,” said Ron Johnson, a Mote trustee and past board president. “Kumar is the finest executive I’ve run into. Most scientists aren’t good executives. He has to go out and fundraise and lobby in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. He’s the biggest promoter for Mote and the need to educate people about its primary purpose.”
Mahadevan planned to become a scientist, but never an executive.
In 1975, some time after he found his way to Mote, he approached then-director/CEO Dr. Perry Gilbert about a job. Gilbert rejected him, but he did it so politely that Mahadevan was in his car in the parking lot before he realized it.
Three years later, director/CEO Dr. Bill Taft hired Mahadevan on the condition that he find enough money in grants to cover the costs of his salary and research. Mahadevan found a grant to cover his first six months’ salary.
His first project involved reviewing a series of biological assessment reports on Florida Power Co.’s Anclote Plant.
Five years later, Mahadevan became interim co-director with Dr. Richard Pierce. He assumed the position reluctantly, because he didn’t want administrative work to take him away from his research.
Then, in 1986, the board tapped him to become the permanent president/CEO, while Pierce returned to research at Mote, where he still works today.
Two years into Mahadevan’s new role came a transformative moment for Mote: the 1988 arrival of its 135,000-gallon shark tank at its aquarium, then known as the Science Center.
The addition transformed the center from a “glorified pet shop” to an interactive aquarium, according to Mahadevan.
On its first day, it drew 22,000 people.
“Traffic was backed up all the way to Gulfstream,” Mahadevan says, laughing. “Remember, we used to have a drawbridge.”
The shark tank’s success caused Mote officials to redouble their aquarium efforts and not just because attendance provided a valuable source of revenue. They realized they could talk and talk about their shark research. But, to get the public excited about the research along with lessons about the environment, Mote had to show them the shark.
Under Mahadevan’s direction, Mote has expanded to include a 200-acre Aquaculture Park in eastern Sarasota County, research field stations on Pine Island in Charlotte Harbor and Summerland Key in the Florida Keys, satellite offices in Punta Gorda and Boca Grande and a second public outreach exhibit dedicated to coral reefs in the Eco-Discovery Center in Key West.
Clark considers Mahadevan successful, especially when it comes to connecting issues that matter to the community and science.
She cites Mote’s beach-monitoring program as an example because red tide affects the area’s recreation, along with marine life.
“I think he has the well-being of the community in mind as well as the development of this laboratory,” she said.
Mote has become a second home to Mahadevan in the last 35 years. When he and his wife, Linda, married Sept. 27, 1980, they exchanged their vows at the laboratory, then held their reception at the Science Center three weeks before it opened to the public.
The area was so undeveloped then that some of his buddies had to scare away rattlesnakes before the festivities could begin.
His three adult sons, Andrew, Chad and Alex, practically grew up at Mote’s docks, summer camps and Chicki Hut. (In fact, they spent so much time there that Mahadevan is sometimes surprised none of them chose a career in science.)
Still, he believes that the organization will continue to thrive.
“I’m just one of 200 people,” he said. “There are 199 people left. They’ll keep this place dynamic and keep it growing.”
One of the biggest challenges will continue to be funding. Mote currently has an endowment of approximately $13 million, but Mahadevan believes it needs to grow closer to $50 million.
He remains excited about Mote’s research and its economic impact, currently estimated at approximately $70 million annually in Sarasota County.
He’s enthusiastic about the prospects of research on sharks and why they don’t seem to develop illnesses such as cancer, which could have implications for humans.
He also has a “soft spot” for aquaculture and fisheries projects, in part, because his mentor, laboratory benefactor William Mote, was an avid fisherman. It’s another area in which Mote could have an impact because seafood is second only to oil in the U.S. in terms of its trade deficit.
“I think the lab’s strength is to stay on the cutting edge,” he said. “If you don’t keep up with where the world is going, you’re going to be left behind. You have to be on the leading edge. You can’t just rest on your laurels. I think that ethic exists with all of our staff and volunteers.”
Dr. Michael Crosby was appointed to lead Mote Laboratory’s scientific endeavors, immediately following positions as associate vice president for research and economic development at George Mason University and vice chancellor for research at the University of Hawaii-Hilo.
In his three years at Mote, Crosby has helped develop the lab’s current guiding document — the 2020 Vision and Strategic Plan, developed the Mote Marine Laboratory Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, which provides support and mentorship for recent Ph.D. graduates, and is working on several international initiatives expanding Mote’s marine science leadership worldwide.
“One thing that drew me to Mote was its scientific reputation — thanks in large part to Dr. Mahadevan,” Crosby said. “But the more I’ve gotten to know Mote, the more I’ve been excited by our ability to support the transfer of our scientific findings into public policy as well as sharing that information with the public through our programs and the aquarium. I also have the opportunity to lead a great staff here at Mote.”