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Instead of lining up for a stadium show, Theater of the Sea visitors often begin with the dubious-sounding “bottomless” pontoon ride. Partway through the trip across the lagoon, Sherman the dolphin gracefully jumps up through the open middle of the pontoon and through a hoop just a few feet from passengers.
Florida’s Keys don’t have room for gargantuan theme parks, nor do they seem to fit the character and fierce independence of locals who rallied to secede from the United States as the Conch Republic in 1982.
Every place in the Keys seems to be within walking distance of the ocean and seamlessly knit to its many creatures. Family-run attractions take tourists fishing, snorkeling, diving and let you feed tarpon, which rocket out of the water to snap at bait dangled from a dock. Nonprofits do everything from using dolphins to work with mentally handicapped kids and adults to healing injured sea turtles at a midcentury hotel turned into turtle hospital.
Theater of the Sea feels fits right in with its laid-back pace and intimate feel. It’s far more affordable than Orlando parks and easily doable in half a day, leaving time to dawdle or head back to the ocean.
I dropped behind my group and missed most of the parrot show ahead as I was drawn to the quiet snorkeling lagoon at the end of the mangrove walk. I waded into the water, utterly enchanted by electric blue and rainbow-hued parrotfish. They undulated toward me like a shimmering fan.
Spying a feed machine on shore, I scrounged for the best quarter I’ve ever spent.
The man at an empty beach bar nearby didn’t bat an eye as I stood there laughing all by myself with fish bumping gently, then greedily into my legs, gulping pellets and eating from my hand. I gratefully found another quarter to repeat the Technicolor frenzy.
Making a splash
As the clock nudged toward 2:30 p.m., I could hardly wait for my own dolphin swim. Our group was to take turns cradling Stormy or Duffy and waiting for the bottlenose kiss.
Before long, the fun revved up, as we each grabbed a fin for a short, speedy ride across the lagoon. I waved elatedly, feeling like a modern Ethel Merman.
Then it was time for the final thrill: the foot push. I nervously locked my knees and ankles and waited to feel Stormy nose into the bottom of my foot.
Her 600 pounds of hydropower launched me explosively upward with a “Whoosh!” She is so strong that I was almost standing upright as we churned across the water; I was reveling in pure exhilaration.
I flashed back to watching Pinder’s foot-push ride and understood why he threw out his arms and triumphantly shouted “Aquaman!”
After reluctantly saying goodbye to the dolphins, I strolled back to the Postcard Inn beach and stared at the glittery ocean with a fresh appreciation for what lies below its surface.
As I waded into the water, a voice in my head piped up “Aquawoman!” and a giddy grin lingered through sunset.
Minnesota travel writer Lisa Meyers McClintick wrote the guidebook “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and the travel app Minnesota Lake Vacations.