Situated halfway between the centuries-old allure of St. Augustine and the new, robustly growing development of Palm Coast is Marineland, a curious little Atlantic Coast map dot.
The town’s contents are few, its residents fewer. It was incorporated in 1946 around its only draw, Marine Studios, so that it could earn a spot on an official Florida map. According to the U.S. Census, Marineland’s population now totals 16—a number that does not include the dolphins, turtles and other aquatic creatures who live at the Marineland Dolphin Adventure.
In fact, the aquatic residents outnumber the terrestrial ones.
Marineland is a venerable Florida attraction where visitors can enjoy an up-close interaction with a dolphin, all with an oceanfront view. Visitors can choose their own experience, ranging from simply watching the dolphins interact with their trainers and other guests to an immersion, in which they suit up with the trainers and get into the water with the sea mammals.
“The education that takes place there with children and adults is phenomenal,” says Carey Rountree, the senior vice president of sales and marketing for Marine Dolphin Adventure and its owner, the Georgia Aquarium. “They’re life-changing experiences for many people.”
Marineland’s status as a town is just one reminder of the dreams that once swirled around Marine Studios, the original name for the attraction that opened in 1938 as a first-of-its-kind facility where visitors could observe ocean life on land and filmmakers could shoot underwater scenes.
The location was selected because of its proximity to Jacksonville, less than an hour away on U.S. 1 and a popular site for film production in the early 20th Century.
The movie portion of Marineland’s mission was short-lived, though scenes from Tarzan films starring Johnny Weissmueller were filmed there, as well as “Revenge of the Creature” in 1955, which included Clint Eastwood’s first on-screen appearance. In 1981, animal star Benji became the first dog in history to scuba dive when scenes for his television special were filmed at Marineland.
“Our three pillars were originally movie production, science and research, and entertainment for tourists,” says Kurt Allen, general manager of Marineland Dolphin Adventure, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. “Two of those things are still our motivation. We’re still continuing the vision of our founders.”
Those founders were notable: Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney and S W. Douglas Burden, both of them descendants of railroad and shipping giant Cornelius Vanderbilt; and Count Ilia Tolstoy, grandson of the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. All three men were interested in science and conservation; in the early 1970s, Whitney donated two acres of land in the town of Marineland to the University of Florida and covered half the construction costs for a laboratory, the Whitney Laboratory of Marine Bioscience. Today, the UF lab is one of the few other inhabitants of the town of Marineland.
The attraction has endured the ebbs and flows of consumer tastes and economic pratfalls for three-quarters of a century, from bankruptcy to the degradation of its original facilities, which were feats of engineering when built 75 years ago. The original structures were torn down in 2004 after a series of hurricanes struck the northeast corner of Florida, and Marineland began focusing on a future facility built specifically for animal-human interactions.
Today, the building housing Marineland’s gift shop is one of the few remnants of the original campus. And in the new, 1.3 million-gallon tank, the intimate dolphin encounters at Marineland still offer the best of both worlds: The interaction with dolphins coupled with the natural setting of the Atlantic Ocean.
Often, you’ll even see wild dolphins jumping and playing in the ocean while you’re enjoying an afternoon with the ones in human care. Marineland is also available for rent as a setting for a wedding or other private party. (A common request from brides and grooms: jumping dolphins as the officiant pronounces the couple husband and wife.)
The attraction was purchased in 2011 by the Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest, located in downtown Atlanta. The aquarium has invested about $3 million into Marineland, instilling new life into the old attraction.
But Marineland also still has some important holdovers from the old days, including Nellie, a 60-year-old female Atlantic bottlenose dolphin who is, by far, the oldest dolphin in human care.
In addition to collaborations with UF’s Whitney Laboratory, the aquarium also operates the Dolphin Conservation Field Station in Marineland, a facility authorized to respond to marine mammal emergencies along several miles of Atlantic Coast on behalf of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Besides the dolphin encounters, guests can also take a behind-the-scenes tour at Marineland. There, they will see exhibits featuring other aquatic animals from the southeastern United States and learn about Marineland’s history and modern aquatic research.
Rountree, with the aquarium, says the purchase of Marineland fit the aquarium’s mission because the dolphin interactions encourage a true relationship between humans and dolphins. “One of our major missions is to inspire stewardship of aquatic animals,” Rountree says.
“We now have a foothold in a great location to do our research in conservation,” he continues. “You can study animals in human care, or in their natural habitat—and we can now do both.”
If you go…