Theater of the Sea
Theater of the Sea, halfway down the Florida Keys in Islamorada, is a comfortable, well-kept place to see dolphins and sea lions. The feel is relaxed and intimate. Pay your admission, and two minutes later you are nose to bottlenose with marine mammals. It's not a huge corporate stadium rock event, where every bench has a sponsor. You don't need to remember where you parked.
At the dolphin show, for example, you can sit a couple feet from the water, and just inches above it. There is no need for a killer whale to jump out and splash the multitudes up in the nose bleed seats. When kids are asked to walk up and touch the dolphins, there are no insurance forms to fill out, they just stand up and go do it. And the classic dolphin tricks -- like leaping twenty feet out of the water to touch a target -- are much more impressive up close, the difference between watching a slam dunk from the playground or from the luxury boxes.
Part of this homey feel is no doubt due to the geography of the place, which would make it hard to build a megattraction. Theater of the Sea started up in 1946, not fifty feet off of Hwy 1, using a lagoon created by an old rock quarry. The lagoon recedes from the theater, gradually into the trees. When we were there, two dolphins were supposed to do the show, but one was off somewhere out in the lagoon. It didn't matter -- the other one did double duty.
After the show, you can wander over to the sea lion pens. Between their shows, the sea lions lie around in full view, and you can make small talk with them until they get annoyed enough to slop off into the water. But by then its time for the glass bottom boat ride.
The more recent and very popular "Swim With The Dolphins" program undoubtedly subsidizes these small shows. A number of other places in the Keys have similar programs, but Theater of the Sea allows kids as young as five to participate.
For an added fee, you join another seven or eight people who one by one get in the lagoon and have a dolphin pull them through the water, dance with them, and jump through a hoop they hold. Advance reservations are a must.
You do have to endure a long lecture about dolphins and how great they are (key point: the dolphin's trademark smile is frozen on, and if he starts acting pissed off, he is), but it ends up being worth it. They teach you how to grab on to a dolphins fin for the ride (hold on at the base), and, addressing the 1993 news story that has become legend, advise that you avoid the dolphin's genital areas during the hugging and kissing part of the program.
Theater of the Sea also hosts Swim With The Sea Lions, Swim With Sting Rays, and a Dolphin Wade for very young kids, but the dolphins are the stars, here. And once you are done swimming the lagoon side-by-side with one, you are back on the road in minutes, again passing the giant fiberglass lobsters and manatee mailbox holders of US 1 South.