Dolphins jumping through show hoops, circa 1980. Courtesy of Florida Memory

Marineland served as a prototype for the theme parks that would eventually eclipse it. Ticket sales increased when Walt Disney World opened outside of Orlando in 1971 thanks to the influx of new tourists coming to Florida. Two years later, however, SeaWorld opened, directly competing with Marineland and causing attendance to plummet. The smaller park never recovered.

In the 2000s, a wave of hurricanes hit the Florida coast, and paired with Marineland’s decline, the park closed a majority of its original structures and exhibits in 2004. Plans to update the facility had already been in the works, so Marineland began constriction on a facility more focused on marine life education and interaction. The new, 1.3 million-gallon oceanarium re-opened in 2006 to offer dolphin interactions instead of traditional, full-fledged shows. Today, 14 dolphins live at the facility.

Current tricks exhibited by Marineland dolphins. Photo by Bill Delaney

In addition to the park, a Marineland exhibit has recently opened at the St. Augustine Historical Society, featuring original photos, documents, and memorabilia from the park’s history. There, I had the chance to interview Terran McGinnis, the park’s historian who has been with Marineland for 16 years. I asked Terran about Marineland’s legacy and what she would want the oceanarium to be remembered for. On one hand, Terran highlighted the park’s founders and staff, “on whose shoulders” many others stand. Terran expressed a wish to preserve people’s memories, whether they’re the memories of those who worked at the park, or of those who visited it.

On another hand, Terran expressed the “transformational” quality Marineland has had on its community, locating it as the “first place, geographically and in time, that pivoted the community’s opinions.” Terran highlighted how, before Marineland, marine life was hunted either out of fear or as food. With the park’s opening, visitors from across the country had the opportunity to appreciate the beauty and wonder of marine animals. This sentiment later turned into a view of dolphins as entertainment value and, today, people visit the park with fascination about human-dolphin interactions.

Photo by Bill Delaney

In this spirit, I would posit the next shift in the “community’s opinions.” If we have seen the condition of dolphins continuously improve, thanks to a realization of the sometimes painful treatment they have received, what should we demand next? In a world of climbing temperatures and rising sea levels, coral reefs are dying, marine life is sickening, and dolphins are hunted in various parts of the world. Throughout the decades, the community has gotten its fair share of animal entertainment and fascination. We are entering a time of conservation and protection, and if we are to claim any true appreciation towards these animals, rather than applaud them, we should instead preserve their livelihoods in their ocean homes.

Article by Sarah Dumitrascu.