At 74, Marineland celebrates its past while moving forward

Now owned by the Georgia Aquarium, the oceanarium once known as Marine Studios has a greater emphasis on scientific research.

07/14/2012 12:00 AM

07/10/2012 6:07 PM

Her eyes are cloudy now, a blueish-gray haze blocking out some of the sunlight that glints off the water in her habitat. She doesn’t always move as nimbly as the dozen other dolphins sharing her space, either.

But that’s OK, because Nellie has something they don’t.

She has seniority — 59 years of it, more than double the normal age of an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. And those eyes, before a hint of cataracts snuck in and stole the sharpness of her vision, have witnessed many of the triumphs, declines and rebirths of Marineland, one of Florida’s early theme parks.

“She’s somewhat the matriarch,” said Kurt Allen, vice president and general manager of Marineland, as he watches Nellie gracefully glide under an archway in the pool where she suns herself. “She is literally rewriting history every day.” The same can be said for Marineland.

Now owned by the Georgia Aquarium, the world’s first marine animal park opened 74 years ago, offering visitors previously unheard-of access to dolphins, whales and other creatures that roam the seas.

For decades, the pioneering aquatic retreat thrived, attracting as many as 400,000 visitors a year.

But the Marineland of today is a very different scene. Operated by the aquarium as a separate nonprofit organization, it is located in a trio of nondescript off-white buildings battered by surf spray near the same spot where the original structures once stood, nestled between Fla. A1A and a postcard-ready section of the Atlantic Ocean about 20 miles south of St. Augustine.

Georgia Aquarium has poured about $3 million into the facility so far this year, mostly for operational improvements such as pool heaters and new signage. But the park struggles to meet even a fraction of its former attendance figures. An estimated 50,000 people visited Marineland in 2011, and 60,000-70,000 are expected this year.

Carey Rountree, senior vice president for sales and marketing at Georgia Aquarium, attributes low attendance figures to public perception. He says many Marineland fans of years past think that when the venue closed for repairs in 2004, it never re-opened.

“That’s been our biggest challenge, to tell people we are open,” says Rountree. The eventual goal is to hit a six-figure attendance number again.

Despite the financial and attendance woes that have hindered Marineland, the Georgia Aquarium has a twofold stake in the facility. The coastal Florida location provides access for marine research and specimen collection — three of the four manta rays at the aquarium were gathered off the Marineland coast. And collaboration between the facilities allows the aquarium to answer critics who say the Atlanta aquatic emporium is too focused on entertainment.

According to Rountree, acquiring Marineland fit the philosophy on which the Georgia Aquarium was founded. “Bernie Marcus (aquarium founder and CEO) wanted it to be a combination of entertainment, conservation, research and education. In order to do that, you had to pay the bills, and entertainment was a way to do that. Once we were able to pay the bills, we’ve been able to increase the education and conservation efforts.” Last month at Marineland, the “Behind the Seas” exhibit opened, featuring additional dolphin viewing areas and a collection of artifacts from the oceanarium’s past.

But while Marineland’s focus is on education, elements of the attraction remain touristy draws. Visitors willing to pay extra for intimate dolphin experiences can stand in shallow water for 20 minutes with the slate-colored mammals or be a trainer for a day.

After all, bills need to be paid there too, owners say.

Bankrolled by a group of investors that included Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and Count Ilia Tolstoy (yes, grandson of Leo), the facility opened June 23, 1938, as Marine Studios because it was intended to double as a location for filming underwater movie scenes.

The eye-popping centerpiece of the park was a 75-foot circular concrete oceanarium where bottlenose dolphins and whales frolicked in remarkable proximity to the public. For $1.10, visitors could peer at schools of neon-hued fish and menacing sharks through 200 portholes that lined the venue’s walls.

From above, dolphins could be seen flaunting their tricks on the surface of the pool, and other aquatic creatures such as loggerhead turtles, sea lions and African penguins were elsewhere on view. Theme-happy watering holes such as the Moby Dick lounge and the Rocking Ship bar appealed to customers’ wallets and non-marine pursuits, and the flamingos near the front entrance made for colorful additions to visitors’ photo albums.

Meanwhile, the business of moviemaking got under way, and Marine Studios made its film debut with the 1939 MGM short, “Marine Circus.” The site thrived as a movie set, appearing in several 1940-era “Tarzan” movies with Johnny Weissmueller; other films followed. In 1961 the facility’s name was changed in a marketing move. The tiny town that had sprung up around the park had incorporated as Marineland in 1946, and the owners decided to rename the venue after the town because it was marked on most Florida maps.

Marineland thrived through 1950s and 1960, which marked its heyday. But all of that changed with the opening of Disney World. Compounded by the opening of I-95, which funneled travelers away from Fla. A1A, and the arrival of SeaWorld Orlando in 1973, Marineland attendance deflated to 20,000 visitors a year.

Over the next several decades, the theme park would undergo a series of openings and closings, ownership changes and a bankruptcy. The facility began to fall into disrepair. In 2001, Jim Jacoby, an Atlanta developer and Georgia Aquarium board member, bought the property and closed it for a two-year renovation that included demolishing some of the original structures. It re-opened in 2006 as Marineland’s Dolphin Conservation Center with a fresh look, including a medical lab and eight new dolphin habitats, and a renewed mission to educate the public about marine life.

But the restoration angered some Marineland purists, who cringed at the demolition of their childhood memories.

Gone was the original circular oceanarium, as well as the patented dolphin show. Also ditched was the Rocking Ship Bar, a hangout of Ernest Hemingway. Still intact is the replica of beige coral reef that marked the original entrance, the opening to thrust heads through for a photo op beckoning as always. And the beloved statue of Neptune again presides over the garden near the front of the property.

Attendance brightened slightly. In 2009, about 66,000 people visited. But in January 2011, Jacoby sold Marineland for $9.1 million to the Georgia Aquarium, which renamed it Marineland Dolphin Adventure.

Across the street from the entrance to Marineland, in an unadorned building that doesn’t prompt a second look, George “Geo” Biedenbach, director of conservation programs, and field coordinator Matthew Denny spend their days doing the kind of work tourists may not think about when they visit the park, but which is vital to its dedication to marine research and education.

Opened in 2009, the $1.5 million Dolphin Conservation Field Station is a stranding center that rescues and recovers whales, dolphins, manta rays and whatever else might float to the surface or wash up on land.

Biedenbach and Denny respond to about eight strandings a year. The outcome usually isn’t pleasant.

“Seventy-five percent of the animals that hit the beach are already dead,” Biedenbach says. “Many others die on their own or are euthanized within 24 hours.” If the animal is alive, the staff performs triage and transports it to one of its partner hospitals at SeaWorld, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce or Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City.

If it’s “fresh dead,” with no signs of bloating, it is taken to Marineland’s necropsy facility. Here, internal and external exams are performed.

“We’re basically ‘Dolphin CSI,’” Biedenbach said.

He and visiting veterinarians document lesions, signs of blunt trauma and other causes of death to glean what they can about underwater life. They also identify wild dolphins in the area and photograph their dorsal fins — a defining feature — so the animals can be tracked. If a dolphin becomes stranded or entangled, a zip through Denny’s computerized catalog can determine which dolphin it is, whether or not it’s a “resident” of the area and if it’s had other problems. So far Denny has collected and tagged data on more than 200 dolphins.

“This is a piece of the scientific puzzle that wasn’t happening before we were here,” Biedenbach said.

In the eight habitats overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at Marineland Dolphin Adventure, 13 bottlenose dolphins follow the commands of their trainers, presenting their fins to visitors who have paid for a “touch and feed” encounter. Some will later hold plastic containers of acrylic paints in their mouths and create dolphin Picassos on canvas for guests willing to pay for the experience.

Meanwhile, one almost-sexagenarian dolphin cruises through the translucent water with a peaceful air. As she glides around her circular pool, Nellie seems to glance at a visitor with a knowing look.

No matter how cloudy her eyes have become, she is the lone inhabitant who has seen it all — the crowds, the spotlight, the lean years and now this new era with its focus on education. Once an entertainer, she’s now a teacher and her lesson is one of longevity.

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