Updates on a Favorite Florida Keys Destination

Prelude- Sometimes as a freelance writer our articles don’t get published…this is one example.

I am proud of this article, so I am sharing on my website. Enjoy!

Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, Florida

It’s been five years since Hurricane Irma disrupted life at Theater of the Sea (TOTS). The Weekly recently sat down with Animal Care Supervisor Alex Mancini for an update.

“We’re really excited! We do a Christmas show every year, but this was the first time we did a Halloween Event, and it sold out in three weeks. The trainers put so much effort into it—dress rehearsals night and nights choreographing it. We think it’ll be a cool tradition that we keep doing every year and building upon that. We also offered a live stream option if they could not make it.” Mancini said.

The annual Christmas show is sponsored by First State Bank and has been running for 35 years. The dolphin shows during the holiday season also include seasonal elements such as music or costumes. This year’s event is scheduled for December 11th.

“Every year, it’s another level—more choreography, better music, and stunts. Our trainers are super talented and always try to make it better every year. Our guests say, “Wow, that’s the best dolphin show I have ever seen.”

Mancini further added, “All trainers are unique and bring their own flair. It’s so cool to watch the different trainers and what they do too.”

Theater of the Sea is family owned by the P.F. McKenney family, Kenny McKenney, and was established in 1946 by Kenny’s father, Bud McKenney. TOTS has a unique and rich history. In 1940, a tourist who worked for McKenney was traveling through The Keys from GA and noticed, although landlocked, noticed that the quarry was filled with seawater and colorful parrot fish. Knowing his employer’s “attraction to fishing and the beauty of the sea,” he told his employer, and the vision was created from there.

The team of 30, often wears multiple hats—including marketing. However, Theater of the Sea has a very specific set of trainers for every animal. These trainers know them very well, work with them daily, and can tell if something is wrong.

Mancini runs the Veterinary Program, which conducts everything from blood checks to ultrasounds monthly. She explains, “The exams are stress-free as the animals are trained to participate voluntarily, the same way as we would train them for a show. The small animals, like the birds, go to the vet hospital. Our vet, Dr. Renner, has been with us and been in the field for over 30 years.”

She shares, “I graduated with a degree in Marine Biology knowing I wanted to work with these animals and have been here for seven years. Before Theater of the Sea, I was an intern at Theater of the Sea and worked at a summer camp with kids, which helped me get in. I also worked at Sea World in the education department. Interacting with the public and educating people is also a big part of the job in addition to caring for the animals.”

The onsite vet lab space was carved out after Hurricane Irma, and none of the animals were harmed during the hurricane. However, there was a lot of flood damage, and the property had lost a lot of its foliage. The main building which includes the gift shop was extremely damaged and therefore completely remodeled. A lot of the cats, which TOTS is also known for, were adopted out across the country after the hurricane as their sanctuary was destroyed.

The dolphins and sea turtles stayed on the property as they had the innate ability to dive deep for shelter and it’s the safest option. The sea lions and birds were transported off-site. The sea lions were brought up to Sarasota, and their trainers went with them. Mancini further adds, “They got an Air BNB and cared for them for a couple of months—their family.” The staff, some of whom lost their homes too, worked together and got everything fully back up and running in December 2017.

One of the fan favorites is Bella, the sea lion. Mancini points out, “Bella is easily recognizable because she bobs her head back and forth – a neurological condition that she stranded with as a pup in 2008. She came to live at Theater of the Sea in 2009 from California after being deemed non-releasable. Her condition does not bother her, and she is such a fun sea lion that our guests frequently request to meet her!”

She passionately added,” People come back specifically to see them and ask about them on Facebook too. We love seeing someone from Indiana thinking about Wilbur, another sea lion. For the trainers, it’s hard to pick favorites. We love them all equally. On the vet side- we get closer relationships with the ones we deal with most often.”

Does she have advice for someone who says, “I would love to be a dolphin trainer someday!” “A college degree in marine biology or a related field like psychology, but any science degree is good but not required. But any science is great as well; we do all of our own testing and health. The main thing that is required, recommended, and that will help you stand out is animal experience; something to related to animals.” Mancini mentioned working in a kennel, pet store, horse farm, volunteering at your local aquarium or zoo, or an internship like Theater of the Sea are all helpful ideas.

TOTS is also a pioneer in interaction programs. She concludes, “We were one of the first to do swim with the dolphins and sea lion programs and one of the only to do snorkel with the dolphins. We are one of the first to train nurse sharks. We love the shows but also thrive on the variety of programs and the rescue. I am proud of the programs we have now, the variety, and they will continue to grow with the collection.”

To read more about the history and what they offer, check out their website www.theaterofthesea.com. Follow on Facebook at theaterofthesea.