Where myths run deep

By Terry Tomalin
Published June 22, 2007

My 6-year-old and his best friend would never admit it, but secretly, they harbor a deep love for mermaids. "I've heard they live in the nearby springs, " I told the boys as we loaded our kayak. "Sometimes they even put on shows for tourists." My son, an avid fisherman, thought about it for a moment. "Do you think we could catch one?" he asked. "We could keep her in the swimming pool." Not possible, I explained. Charming as they may appear, mermaids are hefty eaters, and we couldn't possibly net enough mullet to keep one satiated. "Besides, all the wildlife here is protected, " I explained. "If you try to catch anything, I'll have to call the police and they will take you to jail."

The Merman and Navy SEALs

Newton Perry knew he had found something special when he first set eyes on the spot the Seminoles had named "Weeki Wachee" or "Little Spring."

The first magnitude spring, which discharges 170-million gallons of crystal clear water every day, had been an impromptu dumping ground. Perry, who had trained underwater demolition teams during World War II, cleaned out the old rusted refrigerators and began experimenting with diving equipment.

Newt, as Perry was known to his friends, taught some local girls to do aquatic ballets while breathing off air hoses under 20 feet of water and people lined up to have a look.

No tourist trap

But just a few hundred feet from this classic Florida attraction, the Weeki Wachee River begins its 12-mile run to the Gulf of Mexico. This pristine river, most of which is protected, serves as a home to alligators, otters and the endangered West Indian manatee.

The latter, I told the boys, is quite possibly the creature that inspired the story of the creature that was half-human, half-fish.

"If you were a sailor, at sea for months at a time, and you saw a manatee surface with a clump of seaweed on its head, you might think it was a pretty girl and want to give it a big kiss, " I explained.

No way, they said. Yes way, I countered.

Swimming with manatees

On weekends, the river can get crowded. But on this warm spring afternoon, we had the waterway to ourselves.

The current runs about 5 mph (it varies with rainfall) so the paddling is easy.

Bird life - ducks, wading birds, kingfishers and ibis - might be your only companions. You'll also see huge schools of mullet as they seek sanctuary, swimming upstream.

"Dad, what's that?" my son asked, pointing to a 6-foot shadow heading our way.

"It looks like a manatee, " I said.

The sirenian swam past then turned around and followed our kayaks. My son, standing on the deck of a friend's boat, lost his balance and fell in.

"Dad, I accidentally touched the manatee, " he said. "You won't tell, will you?"

"It will be our secret, " I said. "Scout's honor."

Keep left

The trip from the head springs to Rogers Park takes most folks about four hours. But the outfitters at Weeki Wachee Canoe and Kayak Rental offer a thorough briefing before each departure to make sure nobody gets lost.

As we came to a fork, I asked my son, Kai, and his friend Mitchell which way we should go.

"The lady said keep left, " Kai said.

"Right, " I said, in agreement.

"No, left, " Mitchell repeated.

"Right, " I said, laughing.

"No, left, " Kai yelled.

I tried to explain the "Who's on first?" comedy routine, but they were too young for Abbott and Costello. Hot, tired and hungry, the boys were ready to mutiny. So like any good captain, I told them a sea tale.

"This little boy falls out of this boat and gets rescued by a mergirl, " I began. "Years later, he meets her again, except now she's Daryl Hannah."

"Does he take her home?" my son asked.

"Yes ... he takes her home, " I replied.

Everyday Adventures

Weeki Wachee River

Do's and don'ts

It is illegal to feed, chase, ride or harass the manatees in any way.

A county ordinance prohibits swimming or fishing for the first mile on the river. Stay in your boats for the first 30 minutes while paddling.

Respect private property.

Alcohol is prohibited. A single, unopened beer will net a $148.25 fine.

Canoe and kayak rentals

A two-person canoe costs $38 per day; a one-person kayak $30. Sea backs, personal flotation devices (PFDs), paddles and transportation back upstream are included. On weekdays, boat launch times are 9 a.m. to noon; weekends, 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. The last pickup time is 3:30 p.m. For information call (352) 597-0360, or go to www.floridacanoe.com.

Getting there

From St. Petersburg, take U.S. 19 north to the Weeki Wachee Waterpark, located at the intersection of State Road 50. From Tampa, take the Veterans Expressway north to SR 50 and head west.

Watch this June 27 on Bay News 9 On Demand, Ch. 342.