Swimming with dolphins in the Florida Keys

  • Article by: LISA MEYERS MCCLINTICK , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 15, 2013 - 7:04 PM

Swimming with playful dolphins thrills visitors to a marine animal park in the Florida Keys.

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A dolphin gave a smooch to Cara Nash of Nashville during a 30-minute swim at Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, Fla.

Photo: LISA MEYERS MCCLINTICK • Special to the Star Tribune ,

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After a sticky morning in May’s soupy heat, the inland lagoon on the Florida Keys’ Islamorada feels chilly at 70-some degrees. Six of us dip in cautiously, tugging on flippers, treading water and eagerly spreading out.

Once a quarry used to build bridges across the Keys, this three-acre saltwater lagoon is home to eight dolphins that are the heart of Theater of the Sea, a family-owned attraction since 1946. As the world’s second-oldest marine animal park, it was also one of the first to offer swims with dolphins.

Early morning downpours have left the water cloudy, making it tricky to see Duffy and Stormy as our trainer pipes her whistle and they dive beneath the surface.

We wait with our arms cradled, excited and a little nervous, not knowing which of us the dolphins will choose first.

“Oh!” I gasp as Duffy — clocking close to 500 pounds — suddenly settles against me. He feels surprisingly soft rather than slippery. He’s gentle, too, and radiates unexpected but welcome warmth in the cool water.

As we’ve been coached, I resist the urge to hug him close or stroke him above wise, mischievous eyes.

Duffy lingers briefly before swishing forward to the next person, each face lighting up in succession.

At least three sites offer swim-with-dolphin programs in the Lower Keys. Theater of the Sea claims the country’s third-oldest program and more than 200,000 participants since 1987. The park gradually added more interactive programs that let guests work with sea lions, rays and sea turtles. Two of them let you paint a picture with dolphins or sea lions.

Before I signed up for my own dolphin swim, I tagged along to watch a morning encounter after meeting its participants on Theater of the Sea’s pontoon ride across the lagoon. The group included a husband and wife from Connecticut and a trio of Bible study friends from Tennessee.

The wife, Catherine DeCosta, requested a life jacket and was clearly unsure about this wild encounter. Within minutes, though, she was treading water with confidence and enamored of her new finned friends. Her husband, Ed Pinder, let loose a deep rumbling laugh as one of the dolphins — cued to kiss him with a touch of a bottlenose — decided to linger, apparently tickled and intrigued by the texture of his beard.

“I still think kissing a girl is better,” Pinder hollered, a grin plastered across his face.

Each group gets to choose four to five interactions, such as rubbing the dolphins’ bellies, doing side-by-side upright spins, a slow swim alongside a dolphin or high-speed rides across the lagoon.

The dolphins’ permanent smiles and playfulness infuse everyone with the irresistible joy you feel watching a dog gleefully snout-surfing out a car window. It’s contagious, even if you’re not in the water.

“This made the whole trip,” Pinder said afterward.

“Best choice ever,” readily agreed Cara Nash and her Nashville girlfriends. “We’ve all had swimming with dolphins on our bucket list.”

Vintage park has its own vibe

The 17-acre Theater of the Sea feels tiny, old-school and charming compared with Orlando’s highly polished Sea World and Discovery Cove, which sprawl across 230 acres.

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  • Every place in the Florida Keys seems to be within walking distance of the ocean and seamlessly knit to its many creatures.

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