Scuba Donkey at Discovery Cove


When it comes to vacations, some people like adventure.  They jump out of planes & into caves.  They tickle sharks & capture it all on their GoPros which have been carefully stapled to their foreheads.  Others prefer a more relaxed approach, lying on a beach, perhaps, & drinking bourbon margaritas while cultivating the beautiful suntans that will later manifest as strips of skin to be peeled off before envious audiences at vacation recitals.

Not me.  What I want, in return for my hard earned tourist dollars, is to spend my days waiting in lines & being lectured to by disinterested guides.  Ahhh…that’s the stuff!

My dreams came true recently at Seaworld’s Discovery Cove.  Discovery Cove is one of those great ideas that can only be improved upon by half-assing all of it.  It’s a water park, of sorts, but it offers so much more & delivers somewhat less.  Our cast of intrepid adventurers consisted of:  My sister and her husband, my brother and his 11 year old daughter, my wife & self.

The hardcore fun starts immediately upon arrival.  You wait your turn to check in.  This is fun because all your day’s food & drink are included but you don’t get anything until you check in. Now, on the day we went, the crowds weren’t that big but, fortunately, someone bungled our reservations so I got to wrestle with my blood sugar for about an hour while things got “worked out.”  As it happened our family of six was split up into random subgroups and it took some fancy wrangling to get us all on the same ticket.

Problem solved!  We burst through the lobby doors, tummies a-rumbling, vision slowly a-fading.  “I think the cafeteria’s this way!”  I hollered to no one in particular while pointing indiscriminately.  But our haphazard forward thrust was cut short.  It was time for our complimentary photo, just like on the cruise ships.  I was very excited because everyone always looks awesome in ambivalently executed snapshots.  Also, I’d just seen a beautiful red & blue parrot & was calculating the best approach to capturing & devouring it before anyone could stop me.  “Say ‘Cheese!’”

You betcha!

The picture is taken.  We can collect it  in the photo store on the way out.  By God!  There’s still a half hour of complimentary breakfast to dig into & my stomach is making some impressive sounds.  Think of Wagner writing an opera for hippos on steroids.  Take a moment to enjoy.
You’re welcome.

And so we were stopped again.  It was time for the orientation & introductory lecture.  A nice young lady with a dazzling smile informed us that we were currently standing here: where the was no food.  In this direction was some stuff that was also not food.  And over there was some other shit that didn’t even rhyme with food.  She hoped we would enjoy our visit.

As I mentioned, there were six of us now careening toward the cafeteria.  I’ve little doubt that certain land speed records were ignominiously shattered.  Our teeth were bared.  We’d begun chewing before we even saw food.  No one dared stand in out way.

Breakfast consisted of greasy croissant sandwiches of egg & cheese.  Some had sausage (not the spicy kind, of course).  Some had ham (the really salty kind, of course).  There was also orange juice, impossibly bitter coffee, cloyingly sweet tea, cereal & pastries that seemed to have been manufactured in bulk.  Sarcasm aside, it was fucking delicious!!

Our bellies full, our hunger stated, we half walked/half farted our way to collect our wetsuits.  Now, so far, all the staff with whom we’d interacted had been very friendly, eager to please & as helpful as the Seaworld bureaucracy would allow.  The young lady running the wetsuit stand, however,  displayed an overt contempt of the typical Seaworld guest & the sundry glorious interpretations of physical fitness.  We were handed wetsuits that were one to two sizes too small with the promise that they would stretch in the water.  They didn’t.  I haven’t worn anything with the word “medium” on it since I was in junior high school.  Flattered as I should have been at the very notion that I could fit into a medium, it is far more likely that I was the subject of some wager.  “I bet he loses consciousness.”  That type of thing.

At last, we were ready to enjoy Discovery Cove.

There’s a Lazy River.  Now THAT’S for me.  It’s even got the word “lazy” in it. It’s a man-made flowing waterway that takes you around most of the park.  You can cling to one of those foam floating noodles, if you could find one, & just while away the hours trying to keep from falling asleep & drowning or occasionally scrambling out of the way of massive pods of German toddlers snorkeling & trampling everything in their adorable Teutonic way. 

The river has periodic gross changes in depth.  This is undoubtedly to assure that everyone scrapes a knee or the tops of toes.  No one leaves without a souvenir.  The waters take you through caves, waterfalls and an aviary!  Whilst floating through the aviary, one can get uncomfortably close to rare exotic birds.  It was all shockingly birdpoop free.  You know enough about me at this point to realize that I would tell you all about the slightest fece in painful detail.  Alas, dear reader!  I must disappoint us both. All in all, the Lazy River was simply great!  I could’ve easily spent the entire day floating in that special place between awareness & napping, staring up at the sky with unfocused eyes from beneath the slowly moving branches, remembering only to shut my mouth when gliding through the aviary.  Just in case.

Gaby, Mark, Arianne, Gwen and me.  photo by Alex.  All photos by alex.  I left my i-phone in the locker.

Our chaotic reverie was interrupted.  The time had come to swim with the dolphins.  I had agreed to this with some considerable trepidation.  The idea of enslaving any living thing for personal amusement troubles me.  And Seaworld has suffered from the negative propaganda resulting from the movie Blackfish and the heart wrenching footage of porpoises being taken from their family/pods.  The sounds of dolphins & orcas grieving for their babies is hard to stomach.  Discovery Cove feels a lot like a rationalization.  “See? Our slaves are happy here!  Quit your bellyaching & climb onto this porpoise!”  Also, I’ve owned dogs all my life so there’s some ambiguity in my perspective.

I was thrilled to find out that our dolphin adventure was to be preceded by a lengthy sign-in process followed by a lecture.  At the sign-in,  we discovered yet again that our family had been arbitrarily split up.  When this was pointed out to the young lady at the desk, she sighed heavily and mustered up every ounce of politesse while she laboriously proceeded to solve “our” problem.  I was quite happy at the thought of returning to Lazy River & offered a solution: refund my share of the dolphin exploitation fee & I’ll be on my way.  Miraculously, an alternative was found immediately when she crossed my name from one group & added it to the one that contained my kin.  A half hour later, we were again ready to be lectured.

To be fair, the first part of the lecture contained some genuine value.  Don’t wear jewelry because it night fall off & get sucked into a blow hole.  Don’t carry stuff in your hands because dolphins will take it.  Don’t poke them in the eye.  All living things hate that.  Now, you know.  This was followed, without irony,  by a short but interminable film of dolphins enjoying their lives in the wild: hunting, playing, enjoying pod life & being adorably dolphin like.  All of this set to a Lion King styled soundtrack which soulfully conveyed triumph and wonder utilizing electronic music and a gospel singer.  We thought it was hysterical.

Then, we were led out to the dolphin lagoon.  In groups, of course.  There we were introduced to an Atlantic bottle nosed dolphin named Jenny & were taught simple commands to make Jenny perform various tricks.  She waved at us, made interesting noises from her blow hole & rolled over so we could see her belly.  We touched her & marveled at the rubbery smoothness of her skin.  The highlight of the whole experience was when we grabbed onto her fin & Jenny pulled us across the lagoon.  It is both exhilarating and heartbreaking.  I am shameless in my hypocrisy.  Jenny was captured in 1980.  It is entirely likely that she’s now incapable of surviving in the wild.  In addition, the trainers seemed genuinely fond of their charges & Jenny appeared happy so far as I can tell.  Still...

Jenny & I canoodling.

I wanted to clear my head my making it fuzzy.  This would require copious amounts of complimentary beer.  The options are woefully limited to the worst of domestic light beers.  Luckily, one of the snack huts offered Dogfish Head on tap.  I decided to drown my moral ambiguity in that.  Also, it was time for lunch.

The cafeteria was crowded for lunch so the line was pretty long but that’s not a horrible thing when one is still full of breakfast sandwiches & slurping a second or third Doghead Fish.  The lunch selections are what one would find on one of the lower priced cruise lines or higher end old folks homes.  Tastes being so varied & subjective, the decision was made to do away with it altogether.  One is invited to adjust the flavor scale of his or her meal with ketchup and salt which were provided in generous amounts.  I eschewed either for the naturally nonexistent essence of my club sandwich & side of pasta salad.  Besides, my fourth Fishhead Dog had made me happy enough.

Alex: Brother, photographer, hatcher of nefarious schemes

My siblings & niece had signed up for some simulated deep sea adventure.  My sister’s husband wanted to finish his beer & start another in the smoking tent.  My wife wanted to go snorkeling.  I longed for urine warm embrace of the Lazy River.  We agreed to disband for a bit.  I grabbed my floaty noodle & an apparently abandoned life vest.  Once in the water, I wrapped the vest around my legs & placed the noodle under my neck, creating an ersatz raft.  I floated thusly, only vaguely conscious for about an hour until I was politely but firmly informed that I was not allowed to enjoy the parks assets so thoroughly.  In addition, admonitions from female lifeguards with their Baywatch swimsuits & reflective sunglasses will always be interpreted as flirtations from tipsy middle-aged fellows like myself.  I handed over the vest with a wink and the self assurance that “I still got it.”

My wife showed up, just in time to experience my beer fueled, testosterony puffiness.  We floated happily together for a bit & then she suggested we snorkel in the Grand Reef.  She’d liked it enough to want to do it again & show me it’s highlights.  So, off we went.  After donning our park supplied, substandard & leaky masks with surprisingly adequate snorkels, we plunged. We saw manta rays & all sorts of colorful fishies. There was a shark tank and one could swim on the other side of the glass.  Because one is focused toward the bottom of the lagoon and maybe slightly ahead, it’s easy to lose track of others.  And there were plenty of others in the Grand Reef with us.  Personally, I have an astounding sense of self-awareness, but my fellow aquanauts, bereft of similar peripheral understanding, occasionally kicked me in the head or the ribs in their efforts to stand on the manta ray or punch a fish.  My wife, graceful as she is lovely, managed to avoid such interactions.

A pile of sharks.

We exited the Grand Reef lagoon to return to the Lazy River with only a slight detour for more Fishbeer Head Dog.  We encountered my brother and niece.  Someone mentioned that there was a pool off the Lazy River where one could enjoy one’s Beerhead Fishdog. This pool is located in the only truly disgusting area of the park.  The idea is sound:  chairs are halfway submerged & one could sit & sip while watching others play & frolic.  There’s even a few ducks waddling about.  But, the water’s unsettling warmth conspired with images of wallowing tourists & the duck shit that covered much of the bare rock & we didn’t stay long.  As this was close to the end of the day, I’m fairly confident that the duck shit on the rocks was only recently placed there.  On the whole the park was well maintained & surprisingly clean.  But, fresh duck shit offers only a little more consolation than old duck shit.  We aimed ourselves toward Marmoset Island.

Marmosets are cute little monkeys.  Apparently, like vampires, they are incapable of crossing open bodies of water.  So they are displayed on their own little island, probably acting out some Marmoset version of Lost, wondering how they got there, who all these strange people and ducks were & whether the island was some metaphor for the afterlife.  The monkeys pretty much just cling to the trees & stare back at you.  Since none of them were riding unicycles or playing instruments, our interest quickly waned.  We moved on.

The otter exhibit was the most repugnant part of the whole experience.  Keep in mind, we’re still moving about in very warm water with all the ugly scenarios that may conjure.  The otters were located in a glass enclosure but I’m pretty sure we all shared the same water.  There was a covering over the spectator section which helped to trap odors & a growing sense of unease.  The otters ran to & fro & frolicked as otters do.  A blue jay landed on a log in the middle of the enclosure.  The otters quickly organized & approached the bird with what I feared might be evil intent.  I didn’t want my niece to experience the circle of life quite that way so I urged a hasty retreat.  The otters lunged.  The bird escaped.  So did we.

otters sneaking up on a blue jay.  They're like cuddly velociraptors.

We nursed our last beer as we peeled off wetsuits & returned the park’s assets & gathered our belongings.  The park closes at 5:30, when the light is the most beautiful.  No one really wanted to go but Seaworld herds it’s guests toward the exits by way of the gift shops.  The gift shops, by the way, have no fixed closing hours.  They are happy to stay open until you’re done forking over money.  We walked out with a stuffed porpoise, some picture frames with the Seaworld/Discovery Cove logo, a floppy hat, a cd with the day’s photos & a happy buzz.

At the end of the day, Discovery Cove offers an experience.  In my admittedly curmudgeonly opinion, there were substantially more pros than cons but a happy family tends to cancel out most negatives.  The shared experience, the comparison of notes of what we loved & hated about it, the stories we’ll tell our family & friends; those are the best souvenirs.  Discovery Cove is a nice backdrop for that stuff.  You should go.  Take a loved one or three.  Have fun.

having fun.

Mario Inchausti