WEEKI WACHEE — TV star Jack Hanna of the children's nationally syndicated reality show, Jack Hanna's Into the Wild, spends a lot of time in and under the water as he interacts with not-so-well known species and cultures.
But when he rolled off the dock at Weeki Wachee Springs on Thursday to swim with an uncommon species, the famous mermaids, the 61-year-old emitted a loud, open-mouthed, "Whoosh!"
Once he got used to it, the 72-degree spring water was refreshing. The first plunge, not so much.
Hanna and his entourage were at the spring to film a segment for the film series, which won an Emmy last year for outstanding children's series.
Hanna and his wife, Sue, who call central Ohio their home, arrived to find a medley of mermaids seated like colorful, sparkling flowers at the attraction's entrance.
"It's been 34 years since I've been here. I wanted (then) to swim with the mermaids, Hanna told his greeters. "I didn't know you were still here," he said, arms spread wide as if the gather them all in.
"This is a big deal. I work with animals every day. I like sea cows," he added, drawing grimaces from some of the young women.
He went on to impart some trivia that all visitors to the spring know: in the 1500s or 1600s, ships' crews — "maybe with some rum in them" —jumped ship to swim with the mammals that they envisioned to be mermaids.
"Do you think there really are mermaids?" he asked.
"Oh, yes," responded 29-year-old Marcy Terry, who has been swimming and diving at the attraction since 1997. "If you can believe in aliens, you can believe in mermaids."
Hanna learned from the performers that occasionally an alligator or a manatee wanders up the Weeki Wachee River to its source at the spring.
"Keep your camera with you," he urged. "Get me a picture of that and I'll show it to my viewers."
He was wowed that the spring yielded a river.
Although Hanna's appearance and filming had been announced only to the staff and media, when he stepped into the mermaid theatre, children recognized him. Out came an autograph book by a boy apparently in the know, then admission tickets for the animal expert's signing. He smiled and chatted to them through it all, and posed for photographs with the youngsters.
The Hannas watched the mermaids' performance of The Little Mermaid, a story they've taken underwater for years.
Then it was Hanna's turn with the mermaids. He shrugged off his standard khaki safari outfit to don black, knee-length trunks and a white shirt. As he contemplated the water's temperature, his wife, who often appears on the program, gave a little synchronized performance of her own: tight, pointed-toe leg lifts, side slipping cartwheels, closing herself into a ball and submerging. Jack tried the leg lift, clumsily. "I can do this in salt water," he yelled to those chuckling on the dock.
Mermaids Terry, Cyndi Gay, 30, and Ashley Furlong, 19, slithered into the water and ushered the couple into the spring's theater zone. They were without breathing apparatus, just trying out some elementary moves.
Attraction manager Robyn Anderson sat in the theater with a microphone to give instructions to the swimmers. "On three," she said, "drop down and back from the wall." It was a long three-count before all were ready for the photo op. Then the dip.
"Jack," she ordered, "open your eyes. Smile. Breathe, Jack, breathe."
Hanna thrashed, kicked, grasped hands with his mermaid partners. On the third dip the mermaids hauled him to the surface with their arms around him, all of which revealed that mermaid swimming is more difficult than the pros make it appear. Unless Hanna was hamming it up for the cameras.
And the finale: He submerged with a mermaid on each side and they shared kisses. He gave a two-thumbs-up.
The episode will air during the spring, said producer Elaine Pugliese, who oversees filming of 22 programs a year. Into the Wild appears on WTVT-Ch. 13 at 10 a.m. on Sundays.
Beth Gray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.