Like New Yorkers who never visit the Empire State Building, we here in the Keys seldom visit treasures in our own back yard. Theater of the Sea is one of those treasures, and it is steeped in local history.
The park was originally a rock quarry excavated for Henry Flagler’s railroad in the early 1900s. Now, 12 million gallons of seawater are pumped in daily to supply 3 acres of saltwater lagoons.
Host to more than 100,000 visitors each year, Theater of the Sea was established in 1946 by the P.F. McKenney family, and the park is one of the oldest marine mammal facilities in the world. The family still owns and operates the park.
Very different from mega-parks like SeaWorld, Theater of the Sea offers an intimate setting for up-close looks at the animals. The tour of the park is set up as an ongoing loop that runs three consecutive times throughout the day. The first one starts at 9:30 a.m. and the last one begins at 2:30 p.m. Each tour takes 21⁄2 hours, and visitors can join the tour at any point.
Just walking onto the grounds of the park is like walking into a tropical garden. Orchids, bromeliads, night-blooming jasmine and hibiscus blend with coconut palms, traveling palms, royal poinciana, gumbo limbo, mangroves and bamboo.
“It takes a lot of work to keep up the grounds,” said Maureen Lamarra, director of marketing, who has been with the park for eight years. “Mr. McKenney has a vision of keeping this place a beautiful, tranquil spot that anyone can come and enjoy anytime.”
The loop begins with a walk through the mangroves on a floating bridge over the dolphin lagoon. This is the first opportunity to see the dolphins in between shows.
“We’re the largest natural holding area for dolphins in the world,” Lamarra said. “We want them to live just like they would if they were out in the wild.”
After an explanation of the types of mangroves, the tour winds through a series of exhibits with different animals, including tropical fish, sport and game fish, nurse sharks, turtles, rays, owls and reptiles. The park works closely with the Wild Bird Center in Tavernier and the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. Many of these animals are no longer able to live in the wild.
“A lot of what we do here during the tours is teaching people how we’ve got to preserve these animals,” Lamarra said. “ They’re all important and very beautiful, and they all serve a purpose.”
The parrot show is the first stop on the tour. Created three years ago, it is the newest addition to the park. They have 28 birds, 15 of which are rescues from people who could no longer keep them in their homes. They have several different breeds, and the trainer talks about the characteristics of each. The trainer explains that parrots have the intelligence of a 2-year-old, and then begins a demonstration of their wits. The audience is actively involved with questions and answers, and children participate in some of the tricks.
“I have several objectives with the show,” said Julie Hallagan, who has been the director of the parrot department for four years. “I want to make sure that I get my conservation message out there. These birds are the most endangered birds on the planet. I discuss the physiology of the birds, and I want to educate people about the challenges of having them in the home. We do all of this through the entertainment.”
When the birds aren’t performing in the show, they stay in two outdoor areas. Each one has its own perch and jungle gym in an open area that’s separated from the public by only a rope. They are not caged in or tied down. “They enjoy the human interaction,” said Hallagan. “Most of them have their friends that they choose. They’re very flock-oriented.”
After the parrots, visitors are treated to the dolphin show. There are usually three dolphins performing: Twister, Sherman and Eclipse. Twister, 12, and Sherman, 9, were born at the park, while Eclipse was rescued from a beaching as a baby eight years ago.
The trainers go through a series of basic skills with the dolphins.
Then the music begins, and the dolphins begin the most dynamic part of the show. With lightning speed, they move back and forth across the lagoon. They swim backwards out of the water on their tails and do flips in coordination with one another. Jumping high in the air, they fly through a hoop held by the trainer on top of a tall platform.
Then one of the trainers joins the dolphins in the water for a choreographed routine.
At the end of the show, several members of the audience are selected to come down and interact with the dolphins. Participants get to touch them and feel their skin and lean down to get a kiss.
During this show, the crew teaches the audience about dolphin behavior as well as the dangers they face in the wild. They provide a wallet-sized hand out describing the types of seafood a person should purchase in order to support a healthy marine environment.
“We want visitors to enjoy themselves and be fascinated by the animals, but also we want them to learn about ways that they can make a difference,” said curator Beverley Osborne, who has been with the park 18 years.
Moving on to the sea lion arena, the trainer leads one of four adult sea lions through a series of interactive exchanges, while explaining how they differ from seals. The sea lion plays Frisbee and slips down a large slide that empties into the lagoon. As part of the show, the trainer illustrates how the animals are taught to do various behaviors, and then has the sea lion do a series of those behaviors.
There is also an audience participation segment of this show where volunteers can come down and get a hug or a kiss. Guests will soon be able to enjoy the newest member of the sea lion family, Tucker, who is 11⁄2 years old and just beginning his training.
Finally, guests are offered one last close look at the dolphins on the bottomless boat ride. The boat cruises across the lagoon, while the dolphins play along side and in the center of the boat, inches away from each person.
On the back of the property there is a small beach stocked with colorful parrotfish. There is no charge to swim with these fish, which are even friendlier when offered some food. There is snorkel gear available for getting down under the water for a closer look.
“This is great for little kids,” Lamarra said. “A lot of locals bring their kids here every day. They don’t have to worry about where they are. It’s a nice, confined area, and they can occupy themselves.”
In the lagoon next to that is the stingray swim, which is stocked with 13 generations of rays of all sizes. Dozens of the ethereal creatures float majestically through the water, and they have been domesticated to take food from the hands of visitors. For a fee, participants are taught how to swim with them, how to pet them and how to hand feed them.
Other interactive programs include swim with the dolphins, swim with the sea lion, meet the dolphin, meet the sea lion and wade with the dolphin. All of these programs require reservations and additional fees.
“These animals are like my family, and I just want to make sure that they get the best care possible,” Osborne said. “I enjoy sharing my life with them. I think it’s important that people understand that we put the animal’s health and well-being over all other interests and that we respect every animal as an individual.”