It was a rough night. At 4am we finally decided to let Jack-o go, and at 7am Meaghan arrived at the Emergency Room with Pepper and her dad to be there with him. It was heart-breaking not being there, but he'd collapsed so suddenly that he'd really not known much about it, so why risk him suffering just so we could get back to him? Horse whisperers and other experts speculated that he'd even waited for us NOT to be there so he was off duty and could let go. That would certainly be just like him. Pepper kissed him on the nose and he was gone. With heavy hearts we pressed on with the day. The itinerary could not have been a better distraction: an encounter with the dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center.
The Center was smaller than we expected, and way more crowded. The entire crowd seemed to be lining up for the Dolphin Encounter program, which was not encouraging. But they kept splitting the group in half until there were just four in her sub-group. Phew. Even bigger phew, as these pictures clearly show (thanks to their professional photographers) Claudia had an absolute blast. That's Luna she's in the water with.
For those of us on the side-lines, what was equally obvious was that the dolphins were having just as much fun. If the trainer next door was doing something more fun, a dolphin would swim over to help. To do the fin pull for example, you swim out into the pond and then put your arms out flat on the water. The dolphin then swims up under your hand and you grip the fin as it comes by. The plucky kid in the next group must have been around eight years old, launched out into the water and then waited. Instead of just her dolphin, another one from a different group sprinted over to join in. So now the little girl had a dolphin on each side. They seemed to sense how young and vulnerable the girl was because they were extremely gentle and came by very very slowly. Nevertheless she missed grabbing on. The dolphin pair stopped in unison, and incredibly, reversed back under her hands and stopped until she got a grip. Then they started to pull away in a big circle (so of course the one on the inside had to move much more slowing than the one on the outside). The dolphins gradually pushed the throttles forward and picked up speed until the girl had to crane her head out of the water to prevent the tidal wave under her chin from drowning her. The group headed straight for the dock until about ten feet from the edge the two dolphins stopped on a dime, leaving the girl's momentum to carry her forward and come to a stop right at the edge of the pool. Her ear-to-ear grin was absolutely priceless.
My other favorite trick we watched the dolphins perform was to "swim like a shark" which was an incredibly effective demonstration of the difference between the fish and the mammal. You know you are looking at a dolphin, but the side-to-side motion made the dolphin disappear and instead you are watching a shark. When it was all over we wandered over to the back pool where two young mothers were doing laps with their adorable but impossible to photograph 10-day old pups, and then it was time for lunch.
Our friends Bill and Lucia had told us we absolutely had to stop at Robbie's Marina of Islamorada and feed the tarpon. It's a good job we knew the mile marker otherwise we'd have missed it northbound. As it is we had to do a u-ie. And it was packed. Parked cars lined the street at least 100 yards back, but we drove past them all into the parking lot, and found a space right by the entrance. Then we walked up to the similarly packed restaurant, and were immediately escorted to the table that was not just on the water but right next to the tarpon feeding attraction.
We couldn't believe our luck. We watched some kids try to feed the tarpon without losing their fingers. They will take the food right out of your hand even if it is a foot above the water. Far more fun than doing it ourselves. I tried to film a heron stalking the feed buckets but best of all I learned a trick that I couldn't wait to try myself: a teenager with a GoPro on a selfie stick lowered it into the water to get a priceless underwater shot. The calamari and a local beer for me, and some sort of chocolate thing for Claudia rounded off a surprisingly relaxed, entertaining, and tasty pit stop.
Now mid-afternoon, we finally got back on the road for Sanibel. It was nice having no timetable, we didn't even have to worry about dinner because we had plenty of snacks. So Claudia didn't get too stressed by the traffic northward. Eventually as we got to Miami and the Everglades Parkway, (or more imaginatively Alligator Alley) the traffic disappeared, and we sped west across the park.