Taking the Kids: to SeaWorld Orlando
I can't stop thinking about Grandma. She's only in her 20s, and not really a grandma; she got the name because she was unfortunate enough to lose her teeth.
Oh, did I mention that Grandma is a sea turtle that lost her entire lower jaw when someone cut it off to retrieve a fish hook?
Horrible, I know, but Grandma is pretty lucky all things considered. She was rescued four years ago and nursed back to health and now lives at SeaWorld Orlando (http://seaworldparks.com/en/seaworld-orlando/) where sea turtles are the showcase of the newly opened TurtleTrek, a one-of-a-kind attraction designed to share the sea turtle's journey from hatching on the beach, racing to open waters, facing hazards -- like unscrupulous fishermen and boaters -- and then, if they're lucky, returning to the same beach to lay their eggs.
There's also a call to action. (If you stop using plastic bags -- as SeaWorld plans to do in the next year -- that will keep many animals from being impacted by plastic that ends up in the ocean.)
In the nearly 50 years since SeaWorld's rescue programs began, more than 20,000 injured, orphaned and sick animals -- whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, manatees, sea turtles and birds -- have been rescued, cared for, and in most cases, returned to the wild.
Now, just as SeaWorld brought attention to the plight of the manatee -- and you will see rescued manatees here as well -- the park now showcases the vulnerable sea turtles like Grandma in the brand-new TurtleTrek exhibit. Besides actually seeing these amazing creatures in person, you can see a 3-D/360-degree film (even projected overhead) that features a sea turtle (the hero, of course) and thousands of fish. This six-minute movie is so hi-definition it would take you nearly three months to download it at home.
In addition, more than 1,500 fish native to the Caribbean live in the saltwater habitat and approximately 200 freshwater fish join the manatees in theirs.
TurtleTrek is home to adult and juvenile sea turtles, including hawksbill, Kemp's Ridley, loggerhead and green sea turtles -- all of whom, like Grandma, have been deemed nonreleasable by the Florida government.
The aim, of course, is to release as many as possible. Since 1980, SeaWorld Orlando has returned more than 1,200 sea turtles back to their natural waters. SeaWorld's animal rescue team, in fact, is on call 24/7. (Check out www.seaworldcares.com/conservation. To find out more about marine animals, visit www.seaworld.org.)
Recently, I got a peek at SeaWorld's extensive rehabilitation area that is as well equipped as many hospitals, offering operating rooms, X-ray machines, a pharmacy and experts who consult on animal care with veterinarians and human doctors around the world. Imagine giving a 3,600-pound manatee stitches or setting a tiny frog's broken leg! (You can sign on for such a behind-the-scenes tour ($30 for adults, $10 for kids 3 to 10) as well as other special experiences to get closer to these creatures, including interacting with a Beluga whale or a dolphin, being a marine mammal keeper for a day, as long as your kids are 12, and VIP tours that enable you to cut the lines. For more details, log onto http://seaworldparks.com/en/seaworld-orlando/attractions/exclusive-park-experiences.