Mimi has fish breath, but that’s OK. At 25, she’s had her share of mackerel or smelt or whatever it is sea lions like to snack on. When she leans in to kiss me, I smell a quarter-century of fish. Of course, that’s the least of my worries; the greater issue is that I have a lumbering sea mammal leaning on my hips as she tries to kiss me.
“Sea lions are very efficient in their muscle use,” Mimi’s trainer, Jerry, tells me. I wonder if that’s a euphemism for lazy, but I only wonder for a second, because the next thing I know I’ve got a face full of whiskers and hot sea lion breath.
I am not a “swim with the dolphins” kind of gal, but this experience is something extraordinary. Mimi utterly and completely charmed me, and even though I knew she was responding to trainer commands, I was besotted.
Also, it’s nice to know that laziness isn’t limited to humans. She didn’t miss a chance to lean on me. The experience of a sea lion swimming over to you and resting her weight on your hip while putting a flipper on your back is… surreal.
WHAT: If you’ve ever driven through the Florida Keys, you’ve seen Islamorada’s Theater of the Sea. This marine mammal park first caught my attention on a college field trip, but it’s taken me two decades to actually step inside the park. They have sea lion, dolphin and parrot shows, guided nature walks, a small beach and a bottomless boat ride where the dolphins pop up in the center of the boat.
Theater of the Sea also offers marine mammal and sting ray encounters. While several aquatic theme parks offer dolphin swims, they also offer sea lion and sting ray swims.
WHY: This is the quintessential Florida marine mammal park. It combines old-school tourism (think parrot shows) with humane handling of the sea mammals (the dolphins and sea lions get their full meals whether or not they choose to perform in a show that day.) For the money, this is the best old-school theme park in Florida. Plus, it’s not every day you get to kiss a sea lion.
WHO: Theater of the Sea opened in 1946. The park used a lagoon from a quarry used in building Flagler’s railroad. The railroad is long gone, but the dolphins, turtles, and gators remain.
WHEN: The park opens every day of the year at 9:30 a.m.; at 4:30, the last bottomless boat ride and nature tour begins. Expect to spend three hours on tours and shows; add another hour or more for encounters and swims.
WHERE: Mile Marker 84.5, Islamorada, the Florida Keys.
BEST part: The 30 minutes I spent in the water with Mimi is something I will never forget. It’s pricey but totally worth it; I smiled for days afterwards.
WORST part: Like every other marine mammal park that offers these programs, Theater of the Sea attributes human qualities to trained behavior. Does Mimi think she kissed me? No, she simply did what Jerry trained her to do.
I would prefer to just be in the water with her acting as she would without trainer intervention, but I imagine that if that happened, I’d find that she had no interest in coming anywhere near me. I understand why these parks do what they do; it doesn’t stop me from cringing when I hear “Give kisses!” It also doesn’t stop me from highly recommending the sea lion swim.
MAGIC Question: The sea lion swim costs about $150; dolphin swims cost $175. Park admission, included in these prices, otherwise costs $27 (plus tax.) The park also has less-expensive sea life encounters, such as sting ray swims and dolphin encounters. Check their web site at TheaterOfTheSea.com for pricing and information. Alternately, you can call (305) 664-2431.
This originally appeared in a March, 2011 edition of the Gabber Newspaper.