Local authors publish work on the world’s first oceanarium
By Elizabeth LeBlanc
Special to The Weekly
Rarely does good result from a hurricane, but in 2004 damage, caused by Hurricane Frances did just that.
Under a peeled back roof of Marineland in St. Augustine, Florida forgotten treasures held the story of a revolutionary place that would change the world. Florida Keys resident and author Terran McGinnis was a staff member of the scientific institute that rescued the precious artifacts from the building.
Enter Cheryl Messinger of The Dolphin Connection, Historian for the International Marine Animal Trainers Association (IMATA), and collector of marine mammal memorabilia for the past 15 or 20 years. She had been recording the histories of different facilities for the past six years in a personal quest to preserve the foundations of her profession.
Together they wrote Marineland, a history in photographs and captions of the world’s first oceanarium, where the ocean was brought ashore and marine mammal science was born.
After the storm closed the center’s doors for repairs, McGinnis began sifting through bins, boxes and envelopes that contained photographs and correspondence dating back to its conception in 1937.
Since she personally knew many of the first people to work with marine mammals, Messinger recognized the importance of recording their history.
“Because I see the next generation of people coming up from underneath us and they don’t know. And they can’t know because we haven’t written it,” she said.
Originally called Marine Studios, the facility was located on a spit of land along Highway A1A, 18 miles south of St. Augustine, Florida.
Opening June 23, 1938, it was built for underwater filming and it featured 200 windows on three levels all set with camera angles so that the opposite walls were unseen. The founders had ties to Hollywood, but they were explorers and intellectuals, too. McGinnis, who is now the Education Coordinator at The Dolphin Connection, explains there was a need for such a place.
“The reality at that time was that you couldn’t go into the ocean and get good underwater footage. The camera equipment wasn’t remotely what it is now. This round oceanarium with mixed species looked like the ocean. The fact that the public found it interesting was a sort of a surprising, huge bonus. There wasn’t anything like this; there was no precedent and there was no reason for anybody to expect that people would come from all over just to see an oceanarium.”
Curious tourists and filmmakers were not the only people to come. In the midst of all this filming and tourism, science was happening, too.
The best scientists came from around the globe to observe how the animals lived, watch their natural behavior and to listen to their sounds, Messinger said. The studio had a huge laboratory and opened it to all the universities in the country.
“One of the first discoveries was that sharks do not flip over when they feed,” she noted. “And sometimes, I think we are naïve enough to believe that we discovered things, and we were the first to have done things. As we researched we would go ‘Oh, look at that! None of us were the first to do that.’ These people did it in the 30s and the 40s.”
Marineland had many firsts in its history. The most poignant, perhaps, is the birth of the world’s first dolphin to be born in captivity and to survive.
The science, however, was not just about dolphins.
“It was a science experiment to them. They were wondering internally if these animals were trainable. It was never thought of as something that would lead to dolphin shows,” said McGinnis.
“The animals would do things that would amaze them,” Messinger said. “When the divers went down in the tanks the animals would be curious enough that they would come up and let the divers play with them. People would drop something into the pool, and the dolphins would pick it up and throw it back to them.”
That behavior is what made the scientists start to contemplate dolphin intelligence. “They started an individual experiment with one dolphin and one trainer in the back, not for a show, not for the public but as a scientific experiment to find out.”
Flippy was the first formally trained bottlenose dolphin, and Adolf Frohn was his trainer. There was a difference in what Flippy was trained to do and what the pool dolphins were doing, Messinger explained.
“Flippy was an individual animal in an individual pool with an individual trainer who would say here is a hand signal, and Flippy would go and do what the signal meant and he would be rewarded,” she elaborated.
Later they introduced the whistle which tells the dolphin it did well and to return to the trainer. Not only did Marineland trainers bring in the whistle, these pioneers introduced the hand signal and all of the techniques still in use today.