Mimi Theater of the Sea Islamorada by Cathy Salustri

Road Trip: Swimming with sharks, flirting with sea lions and remembering Flagler’s railroad

Theater of the Sea may be an old-school tourist attraction, but it embraces new thinking about sea life.

Mimi’s a flirt. She always has been a flirt, as far as I know. Born in California, she’s a Florida Keys girl now — and has been for most of her 27 years. The only thing is, her breath smells like fish.

A few years ago, I met Mimi. She’s a sea lion who lives at Theater of the Sea, an old-school roadside tourist attraction in the Florida Keys. If you’ve driven through the Keys, you’ve seen the giant conch shell and waterfall ’round about mile marker 85. The attraction boasts the typical swim-with-dolphins/dolphin show milieu (yawn, and also, kinda not what I want to see — giant, top-of-the-food-chain marine mammal kept in captivity, but I get that people love it) but it also has some pretty nifty other animals, education and history.

First, back to Mimi, the stinky-breathed sea lion I swam with. Sea lions, the astute observer will note, aren’t native to Florida, so what’s up with Mimi? The 30-year-old sea lion came from a California zoo. She’s blind now (30 is ancient in sea lion years) but still swims with people; her trainer guides her by touch. She’s only responding to commands, I know, but she really does seem to flirt as she “stands” to kiss my nose and blows raspberries at me. And when she and I swim side by side, there’s no chance I’m keeping up with this magnificent mammal (perhaps Michael Phelps should have tried this). She’s not the only sea lion here; Bella and Monica and Malibu all came from California, too. They all live here because they have medical conditions that would keep them from surviving in the wild.

Sea lions aside, Theater of the Sea offers one animal experience in particular I think has merit, in spite of recent events involving some idiots who thought torturing a shark was a fun thing to do. You can get in the water with sharks at Theater of the Sea. No, not great whites or bulls or tiger sharks, but docile, sweet-tempered nurse sharks (humans rarely get bitten; when they do, it’s often because they’ve stepped on or harassed one).

Using education, Theater of the Sea hopes to stop the bad PR surrounding sharks; the reputation of sharks as man-eaters leads to illegal acts like those mentioned above, but also fosters the idea that it’s OK to eat shark fin soup and that sharks aren’t a necessary part of our world.

Here’s what the interaction looks like: 


The “tanks” where the sharks, sea lions, stingrays and dolphins live aren’t the type of aquarium tanks you associate with Sea World. Instead, they’re a result of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad. In 1905, Henry Flagler spent an estimated $50 million (slightly over $126 million in today’s money)to build a 128-mile railroad from Miami to Key West. The material for the roadbed came from quarries of coral rock along the proposed route. Crews used the rock to fill a shallow space between two such keys, known then as the Umbrella Keys and today as Windley Key, where you’ll find the village of Islamorada and Theater of the Sea. Three quarries on Windley Key provided roadbed and fill, and left large holes flooded with saltwater and surrounded by coral rock. 

The Hurricane of 1935 savaged the middle Keys and destroyed the Overseas Railroad, and the state used the remaining bridges to create the Overseas Highway (the southern terminus of U.S. 1). A few years later, developer Alonzo Cothron bought the land containing the abandoned, watery quarries and began farming stone crabs in them. In 1940, a tourist driving across the Overseas Highway noticed the bright colors of the reefs as he passed these quarries and told his boss, Bud McKenney. While World War II delayed the McKenney family’s plans, by 1946 Theater of the Sea had opened with a few dolphins, one of the few sandy beaches in the Keys, and lots of colorful fish.

71 years later the McKenney family stills owns Theater of the Sea, but the way they regard the animals has changed. They take in abandoned cats, which roam the property, and the exotic bird show consists mostly of birds people no longer wanted. Many of the marine mammals at the park have conditions that prevent their release into the wild.

Living at Theater of the Sea may not be open water, but for these animals living in the sunshine and in real saltwater — not in tanks where “trainers” stand on their backs — it’s close. 

Theater of the Sea

Mile Marker 84.5, Islamorada, Florida Keys. Open daily at 9:30 a.m. $33.95 + tax (some discounts available online). Animal encounters start at $45.305-664-2431. theaterofthesea.com.

Cathy Salustri originally published this article at Creative Loafing.