We were up early and in the car just after 8am on our way to the Weeki Wachee State Park which is near the west coast of Florida, about an hour north of Tampa. Weeki Wachee is a magnitude 1 freshwater spring and cave divers confirmed in 2007 that it is the deepest known freshwater cave system in the United States. The water that gushes from it with tremendous force has taken 100 years to reach the surface and it is glassy clear, forming pools and rivers of the same incredible clarity. Every day around 117 million gallons of water gushes up from a bottom that no one has found. It is a constant 74F and in the winter this attracts manatees who swim upriver from the colder sea.
In 1946 a Navy diver, Newton Perry found the spring and began to clear it out of dumped cars with an aim to preserve it and to form a business around it. In the 1950s he established the mermaid shows which were televised and the springs became a major tourist attraction. The mermaids were athletic young women who used Perry’s air hoses to remain underwater using natural breath buoyancy alone to perform synchronised dancing and give shows. They are in around 6m of water over the main spring and the current is at about 5mph so it is quite a feat for them to remain in place. The mermaid shows remain an attraction of the park, viewed from an underwater theatre but there are lots of other things to do.
It was a very hot day, easily 26C, maybe hotter. Our first stop was at the Water Adventures site next door to the Weeki Wachee Springs. We had rented tandem kayaks to enjoy a 3 mile kayak down the Weeki Wachee River. It was absolutely idyllic. The river is within the state park and guarded with total care. You cannot take anything onto the river that might pollute it – no single use plastic, no food – well, a whole list of things aimed at preserving its gin clear purity.
We launched and were away. They have it timed so that you are largely alone within visible distance of anyone else and it feels like you are in a tropical eden. The current is running so there is very little need to paddle much, you can just drift along…… it would be really great in a big rubber ring but you are not allowed to actually get into the water. It felt warm to the touch though and very tempting.
We saw great big fish all the way down – bass and trout. The banks are thick tropical jungle really, interspersed with Southern Oaks dripping with Spanish moss, all very exotic. And the water is just this incredible bright blue in many places, better than any swimming pool, over the bottom of limestone sand.
A great excitement on the way was to run into 3 pairs of manatees wallowing in the water. They set up their winter home in pairs, finding a warm spot near the bank, often where a small spring is emptying into the main flow. They are incredibly docile creatures, like a cross between a great seal, a walrus and strangely, an elephant! Occasionally they lift their heads above water to blow air, but mainly they just lie there and permit you to come quite close to view them. Very thrilling.
It took about 2 hours to get to the exit point and then we were shuttled back to the start. I could have stayed all day to be honest. It was lovely. We got changed and went into the main Weeki Watchee spring. There is a swimming area in there but sadly we were not really prepared for the heat of the day after a few cold days, so we hadn’t come in full swimming gear. We had some lunch and then explored. The gardens were very nice and there were peacocks wandering about.
At 2pm we went to hear one of the rangers give a wildlife talk about the creatures found within the state park – tortoises of different kinds, snakes and of course alligators. Quite interesting if a little hokey.
Then at 3 we went down into the underwater theatre to see the mermaid show.
While we waited, they showed on tv screens, old films and tv shows featuring the mermaids going back decades. So many famous people had come to see them, including Elvis!
Then the curtains raised and we could see into the spring through multiple large glass windows and the show began with a routine to the theme from the Greatest Showman. The mermaids each hold an air hose in their hand and occasionally breathe from it but most of the time they are breath holding while performing acrobatic and dance moves and appearing to talk and sing. Is it a bit corny? Yes, but at the same time, it is very impressive. Especially to people like us who know some of what it takes to do what they’re doing. I can honestly say that even at the peak of my underwater fitness, I couldn’t have done it. Well, perhaps with a lot of training… but it was extremely impressive. Especially given the current they were performing in.
Having seen the show, we changed clothes again and headed to Tampa to meet Fran, Dave and their son David for drinks and dinner. We had arranged to meet at a really nice beach bar called Whisky Joe’s. It’s a ramshackle sort of place over the water and we arrived in time for happy hour and after a short wait scored a table out on the overwater terrace. Margaritas were in order and we also had a plate of nachos, just to keep the wolf from the door.
Fran and Dave arrived about 6 just as the sun was setting – gorgeous sunset – and we had a good chat over another round. Our table for dinner was at a nearby restaurant called the Rusty Pelican – very posh, in a kind of Californian fine dining style. To be honest, I’d have preferred to stay at Whisky Joe’s, but we had a good, if expensive, dinner and it was great to see young David again and to hear all his news.
We got back to Orlando at 11pm, totally knackered but having had a really lovely day. Highly recommend kayaking on one of the springs. It was heavenly. And everyone should slot in a visit to the mermaids on a visit to Florida.