Spring Into Adventure with Mermaids and Manatees

February 23, 2016 at 2:54 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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12698307_10154157285116756_9106479937438679828_oBy Sue Cocking, Guy Harvey Outpost staff writer

scocking@guyharveyoutpost.com

[Weeki Wachee, FL–] Sitting in a subterranean amphitheater watching through clear glass as young women wearing glittering mermaid tails swim gracefully more than 16 feet deep underwater can almost make you suspend disbelief in the supernatural.

“There’s Ariel!” a little girl in the audience shouts in delight, and nobody in the audience scoffs. Indeed, we all start applauding.

We are watching one of the live daily performances of “The Little Mermaid” at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park on central Florida’s west coast.  Here, since 1947, generations of young women (and a few young men) have delighted audiences with their unique stunts and choreography– all executed while taking intermittent breaths off free-flowing air hoses scattered around the spring that serves as their underwater stage.

It takes considerable skill to do this.  Wearing neither buoyancy compensation devices nor dive masks, the mermaids must control their depth by the amount of air they inhale and exhale from the hoses– all while dancing, miming and staging mock combat for the audience watching through the glass.  Often they must deal with surprise intruders in the spring that threaten to upstage them– manatees, turtles, a snook that just won’t leave– and several times– drunken patrons from the adjoining Buccaneer Bay water park.  Unflappable does not begin to describe their demeanor.

The Weeki Wachee mermaid shows were the brainchild of Newt Perry, a champion swimmer, diver and attractions promoter.  In their heydays of the 50s and 60s, they drew large crowds, and fans included the late Elvis Presley and other celebrities.

Attendance suffered after Walt Disney World opened, but the shows still went on, albeit to smaller audiences.  Buccaneer Bay was added in the 1980s, and the attraction also includes an animal show, gift shop, restaurant, riverboat tour, and kayak rental.  It became a state park in 2008.

The spring itself is dazzling.  Bubbling up from deep within the earth’s core, more than 110 million gallons per day of fresh, clear, 72-degree water form a narrow river that flows west from the mermaid theater for about 7 1/2 miles to the Gulf of Mexico near Bayport.

A friend and I paddled a five-mile section of the river, renting from the Kayak Shack.  It was a fun, relaxing, non-strenuous three-hour float from the park to the shop’s headquarters over water so clear it appeared invisible. Surrounded by cypress and shady oak, we glimpsed schools of bass, mullet and bream as well as heron, ibis, turtles and at least five resting manatees. Gorgeous.

Visiting Weeki Wachee is but one of many fun outdoor adventures to be savored around Florida’s Springs Coast.  Visitors should also make it a point to explore nearby Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park where they can see a hippopotamus, a Florida panther, and a black bear as well as other mammals, reptiles and birds –and view fish and manatees in an underwater observatory.  Dr. Guy Harvey and fellow marine artist Wyland painted the colorful mural that decorates the outside wall of the visitor center in 2000.

Bicyclists will enjoy pedaling the Withlacoochee State Trail– a 46-mile-long former railroad track that’s been turned into a multi-use path.  A good place to start is the Inverness trailhead and bike either north or south.

All this activity tends to stimulate an appetite.  Here are several recommendations for après-adventure food and drink in or near Crystal River, FL:

-West 82 Bar and Grill at the Plantation on Crystal River

-Peck’s Old Port Cove Seafood Restaurant

-Vintage on 5th

Here’s to happy trails– paddling, hiking, biking– and to putting a spring in your step.

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Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/.  For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling camping, sailing and powerboat racing.  She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit. 

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