On June 23, 1938, cars clogged the lanes of Ocean Shore Boulevard and photographers lined up to take their shot. Over 30,000 guests turned out for the grand opening of the “world’s first oceanarium”: Florida’s Marineland.

An aerial view of Marineland, circa 1938. Courtesy of Florida Memory

Marineland, originally dubbed Marine Studios, stands on the border of Flagler and St. Johns Counties. It is credited as the first place in the world where dolphins and whales were kept in captivity. While the park became famous for its discoveries in dolphin training and behavior, it opened with a different plan in mind. Founders Douglas Burden (Marineland’s president), Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney (Marineland’s chairman), and Ilya Tolstoy (grandson of Leo Tolstoy) first conceived the park as a site where Hollywood filmmakers and actors could shoot footage of marine life for movies and commercials. Owing to the easy access to saltwater and the significant movie present in Jacksonville during the early 20th century, the founders, already connected to the movie industry themselves, chose the First Coast as their site. The original plan was for a marine life filming studio that would occasionally welcome outside guests, but the opposite quickly became true instead.

Filming for Revenge of the Creature at Silver Springs in 1955. Some filming was also done at Marineland and in Jacksonville. Courtesy of Florida Memory

Marineland was envisioned as an underwater film studio that would “bring the sea ashore,” and while it became much more, it has fulfilled that original purpose, too. Numerous feature films, commercials, and television shows have been shot at the park throughout the decades, some of the most famous being Creature from the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature, and the locally produced cult movie Zaat. The oceanarium was largely designed with filmmaking in mind; the tanks featured glass portholes so cameras could film through them.

In addition to these facilities, Marineland also offered guests several motels, snackbars, and the Marineland Marina, bringing the property’s total size at that time to 125 acres. A variety of known figures have visited the waters of Marineland, including former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, and Florida writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, whose husband Norton Baskin, worked at the park’s Dolphin Restaurant and Moby Dick Lounge.

These replica megalodon jaws have been on display at Marineland for decades. Photo by Bill Delaney.

Marineland’s real evolution began in the 1940s, when the park’s first animal demonstrations began. Prior to the park’s development, marine life was unfamiliar to the general public, save for sailors and fishermen. Complex knowledge of marine mammals was scarce, and few thought dolphins, or any marine animals for that matter, could be trained. This realization came as a surprise to Marineland’s own staff, who made that discovery with a diver’s chance encounter.

At that time, divers would hand feed the animals inside their tanks, and with dolphins’ perceptive intelligence, they knew when to swarm the ladder divers who would descend with food in hand. In an attempt to distract the expectant dolphins, a diver threw a fish out and, surprisingly, had a dolphin leap up to catch it. The nearby audience cheered in awe, as if this trick was planned, and in that moment, wildly different ideas about dolphins sparked in the minds of Marineland staff.

Marineland trainer using a fish to get dolphin to leap from the water. Courtesy of Florida Memory Project

Over time, Marineland dived further into dolphin behavior and training. Initial dolphin shows were nothing more than “jump masters” throwing out fish that dolphins could leap up and catch; even audience members could volunteer to participate as jump masters. Later, Marineland hired Adolf Fron, a famous circus trainer who would become the world’s first dolphin trainer, and more complex dolphin shows began in the 1950s. In 1949, “Flippy the Educated Porpoise” (who was not a porpoise at all, but a bottlenose dolphin) debuted his tricks to the world, and in 1954, a fully-fledged dolphin stadium was built. Alongside these shows, researchers began in-depth studies of dolphins, and Marineland became the first marine-life center to discover features like echolocation, dolphin vocalization, and signature whistles, which act like names dolphins give themselves to self-identify. The park’s most famous dolphin, Nellie, was born in 1953 and lived to be 63 years old, becoming one of the world’s oldest. Her son and grandson still reside at Marineland today, and Nellie herself has become the face of Jacksonville University as their beloved mascot.

Next page: Marineland’s later years