Shortly after we bought a vacation home more than 20 years ago, I took my young children to Marineland of Florida - just up the road - to meet the neighbors.
Marineland’s dolphins were the star attractions, as they had been since shortly after the facility opened as an underwater film studio in 1938. They performed their famous shows in a large circular tank surrounded by bleachers, in a stadium-type structure that was two or three stories tall. Although the dolphins may have been content, it was an antiquated facility that was not particularly safe for humans. I had to scramble to intercept my toddling younger daughter before she reached a staircase from which she could have tumbled directly into the parking lot.
Between shows, the dolphins tossed basketballs and other toys back and forth with the guests, who were free to hang around their tank for as long as they liked. It was a pleasant, low-key experience, and not particularly expensive in light of the amount of quality time we could spend with the resident marine mammals.
But we seldom went back. The kids much preferred to spend leisure time in the more varied, not to mention more expensive, confines of Walt Disney World, which was a couple of hours’ drive from us. Later we frequented Universal Studios, and the kids also discovered Orlando’s Sea World. Our neighborhood attraction was overlooked.
Not just by us, either. Marineland once drew as many as 20,000 visitors a day. It fell on hard times as the 1990s progressed; yearly attendance plunged below 70,000. Some of the dolphins were sold to Sea World in 2001, and the entire place was closed for renovations from 2004 until 2006. When it reopened, the dolphin shows were gone. Marineland was now a “dolphin conservation center.” One resident, Nellie, drew increasing renown as the world’s oldest known dolphin. Born at Marineland in 1953, she will turn 60 this year.
Though Marineland was again open to the public, there was not much to see there. It made for a difficult business proposition, because dolphins eat a lot of costly fish. It also takes quite a bit of cash to maintain their tanks, treat their ailments and employ trainers to keep these intelligent and social creatures from going stir-crazy.
Still, a healthy, breeding population of bottlenose dolphins is a valuable commodity in the zoological world. In its early decades, Marineland and other water parks got most of their dolphins from the wild. Modern conservation laws, however, make it illegal to hunt or harass dolphins. Nowadays, most of the wild-born animals that arrive in such facilities are brought there because they are injured. Marineland’s captive dolphins were an undervalued asset. Undervalued assets become takeover targets.
So in 2011, Atlanta’s snazzy Georgia Aquarium, which opened in 2005 thanks to a $250 million endowment by businessman Bernard Marcus, bought Marineland for a reported $9.1 million.
It was like sending Nellie and her companions to business school. Or maybe to the workhouse.
First there was the “rebranding.” As any Southerner knows, it just would not do for the Georgia Aquarium to operate Marineland of Florida. These two states practically go to war every year over a college football game. So Marineland of Florida became Marineland Dolphin Adventure.
The Dolphin Adventure had dolphins, but needed adventure. The marketing hotshots up in Hotlanta created enough options to occupy an entire pod of tourists.
For $29, visitors 3 years and older get a five-minute “touch and feed,” which includes three minutes directly with the dolphins. It is, according to the website, a “fast-paced and exhilarating” experience. I’m sure it is fast-paced, probably reminiscent of Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory.
At just $90, guests can exercise their artistic impulses in a “dolphin designs” program. You choose up to three colors and hold a canvas near a tank, while a dolphin takes paintbrush in hand - make that beak - and produces a work of art. This takes 10 minutes of dolphin time. Don’t knock it; though I’ve never met the artist in person (so to speak), I myself own a painting made by Marineland’s impressionist, Pebbles. I bought it a couple of years ago at an art fair in St. Augustine. I only paid $45, but I transacted my business strictly with humans.
It costs $159 to Discover Dolphins. This discovery occurs while standing in the shallow end of a dolphin tank. The program takes 50 minutes, but you are in the water with the critters for only 20 minutes of that time. Still, on a per-minute basis, the dolphins give you a volume discount.
If you are ready to take a deep dive, almost literally, you will opt to spend $209 for The Immersion. This puts you in the tank with life vest and mask, so you can cavort to your heart’s content in both the shallow and deep water. Just make sure your heart is content within 30 minutes, because that’s all the time your dolphin dance partner can give you. Oh, and don’t ever refer to your pool-mate as a “fish.” I suspect you would get tossed out of the water the way the basketballs once were. Those basketballs, though, are long gone. There’s no money in it, unless the dolphins decide to play a benefit game for charity.
There is more. You can be a “trainer for a day” or send a youngster to a week-long camp. My first thought when I read all this was to think that these dolphins need a union, or at least an agent.
No, I am not part of the crowd that thinks this sort of treatment is unfair or abusive to the animals. In fact, as Nellie’s long life shows, these are very well-cared-for creatures. Humans went without pay and bondholders got pennies on the dollar when times were tough, but the dolphins never did without anything they needed. The days of wild capture are over. Marineland’s dolphins are as domesticated as horses, and need just as much human attention.
A couple of colleagues recently brought their young children, ages 6 through 9, for a weekend visit. We never made it to Marineland, but we had our own dolphin experience anyway. Just after my guests arrived, a pod of wild dolphins showed up at my beach for a long visit. We watched as they snacked on fish right behind the sand bar. One of them even showed off by smacking his tail repeatedly on the water, a behavior known as lobtailing. Dolphins sometimes do it when they are hunting and sometimes do it for reasons known only to them.
After watching the wild dolphins, a visit to Marineland no longer seemed like a high priority for a weekend when the children had many shells to collect and waves to boogie board. It’s a lesson that the Marineland dolphins learned long ago, and which the marketers at the Georgia Aquarium are going to discover, too: The competition out there is tough.