As we celebrate Dolphin Awareness Month, it’s only natural to take a look back to the very beginnings of our love for, and understanding of, these amazing animals. Lucky for us, the roots of our fascination with dolphins began right here at Marineland Dolphin Adventure!
World’s First Oceanarium: 1938
Marine Studios, now Marineland Dolphin Adventure, was founded by W. Douglas Burden, C.V. Whitney, and Ilia Tolstoy in 1938. Designed to be a film studio allowing Hollywood filmmakers to get the underwater footage that was otherwise impossible in those days before underwater cameras and SCUBA diving, Marine Studios held close to a million gallons of natural sea water and a variety of species representing the local Atlantic ecosystem. Two hundred porthole windows placed strategically around the facility allowed for year-round filming.
On February 24, 1938, four months before opening day, Marine Studios placed a single male bottlenose dolphin into their newly constructed circular pool. Soon to be joined by numerous others, the dolphin was the only living dolphin in a zoo or aquarium in the United States.
When Marine Studios was completed, a grand opening was scheduled to introduce the locals and the press to the world’s first oceanarium. When an entirely unexpected 30,000 people tried to attend the festivities, its founders quickly realized that public display with an emphasis on education, entertainment, and research would fill a greater need and be a better option than a film studio. With this new mission in place, guides and announcers provided scientifically accurate information in the oceanariums to the public.
Marine Studios changed history: this generation of children, the first to grow up with opportunities to see marine life up close, would become the voting adults of the 1970s who were responsible for the passing of the Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection Acts.
The First Dolphin Birth: 1939
The first dolphin birth in the United States took place at Marine Studios on December 23, 1939. Although unsuccessful, it provided the staff with information that eventually led to the first successful dolphin birth in the world on February 26, 1947. The female calf was named Spray. As Spray thrived under the care of the Marine Studios staff, no one suspected she might set yet another historical goal.
On March 4, 1954, at seven years of age, Spray gave birth to Marine Studios’ first grandbaby dolphin, a female calf named Peggy. Spray’s mother, Mona, reportedly assisted with Peggy’s rearing, marking three generations of dolphins in the Marine Studios Oceanarium.
This tradition of successful breeding and caring for multiple generations continues at Marineland Dolphin Adventure today with two calves, recently born in July and September of 2016. One of the dolphins currently at Marineland, Sunny, is the son of dolphin, Nellie, one of the most remarkable and beloved bottlenose dolphin at Marine Studios.
Born on February 27, 1953, Nellie holds the distinction of being the longest-lived bottlenose dolphin in any oceanarium in the world. Nellie lived to be 61 years old, passing away in 2014. This is two times the average lifespan of dolphins in human care, and almost five times the average lifespan of dolphins in the wild.
First Dolphin Research: 1940
The successful bottlenose breeding program at Marine Studios was due, in part, to curator Arthur McBride. McBride has been credited with discovering much of what we now know about bottlenose dolphins, including everything from basic biology about how they breathe, sleep, and mate to more complex behavioral observations concerning dolphin social orders, hierarchy, and dominance displays.
In 1951, he co-authored a landmark paper titled Observations on Pregnancy, Parturition, and Post-Natal Behavior in the Bottlenose Dolphin. The paper outlined Marine Studios’ experiences in caring for the very first bottlenose dolphin pregnancies in a zoological setting and included the rearing of five healthy dolphin calves.
Eager to share his discoveries with more than just his peers, McBride’s findings were published in popular magazines to educate the public about the fascinating life of the bottlenose dolphin. In 1948, he coauthored a paper in the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology that outlined many new discoveries about bottlenose dolphin communication, intelligence, reproduction, and social hierarchies. This research wouldn’t have been possible without the dolphins at Marine Studios.
Among McBride’s areas of interest was the bottlenose dolphin’s unexplainable ability to detect things from a distance, even in murky water and on dark nights. During early expeditions, it became apparent that the dolphins more readily perceived small mesh nets than those with a large mesh. This was hard for researchers to understand, which led Arthur McBride to speculate as early as 1947 that dolphins used echolocation to navigate.
In the 1960s, Melba C. and David K. Caldwell identified individual calls made by dolphins that were later labeled signature whistles at Marine Studios. In the 1970s, they also discovered that dolphins could mimic vocalizations including the trainers’ whistles.
First Dolphin “Show"
Marine Studios was proud of its one-of-a-kind bottlenose dolphin research program, and the animal care staff was learning just as much as the researchers through their daily interactions with the animals. Providing fish to the dolphins progressed to hand feedings at the surface, and it was soon evident that by holding a fish slightly above the water, the dolphins would rise up. This was the humble beginning of what was to become a signature attraction: the famous jumping dolphins.
Both competition and mimicry served to produce an entire pool of jumping dolphins, creating the very first dolphin presentation, which became so popular it was performed several times each day. The naturally creative and innovative behavior produced by Marine Studios’ jumping dolphins was legendary and led to a new staff position: jump master.
First Dolphin Interactive Programs: 1946
It was frequently observed that the dolphins initiated play with people as much as people did with them. Marine Studios added audience participation to its repertoire in 1946. A visitor was chosen to occupy the jump master’s feeding platform, encouraging the dolphins to jump up and take a fish from his or her hand.
First Dolphin Stranding Response, Rescue, and Rehabilitation: 1960s
The Marine Studios staff was made up of animal care experts. When two Risso’s dolphins were stranded on Crescent Beach in the late 1960s, it was the Marine Studios staff that came to their rescue. The two males, sick and injured, were brought directly to the oceanarium for rehabilitation. On a steady diet of about 60 pounds of squid per day, they were nursed back to health, becoming the only Risso’s dolphins to be displayed in the Western Hemisphere. This unusual pair, Elsworth and Dennis, were 11 feet long and 650 pounds each, and became a beloved addition to Marine Studios.
First Dolphin Training: 1949
After years of close interaction with dolphins, the staff began to study the dolphins’ capability to learn and their level of intelligence more closely. A plan began to develop, purely to answer the question, “Can a dolphin be trained?” Marine Studios, a facility steeped in research and exploration, devised a new, interesting, and secretive experiment involving a bottlenose dolphin.
In April 1949, a dolphin training experiment began, led by Adolf Frohn, a fourth generation circus trainer. At age 45, when he accepted the position with Marine Studios, Frohn already had 31 years of animal training experience. Although Frohn was skeptical that a “fish” could be trained, he readily accepted the challenge, even though he had never seen a dolphin until the day he first reported to work. In September 1949, he was met with a young male dolphin named Flippy.
Training began in November 1949, and Flippy’s ability to learn exceeded all expectations. He learned six behaviors in one short year, including jumping through a suspended hoop, jumping to ring a bell, walking back on his tail to catch a ball in his mouth, jumping over a net, spinning in the water, and retrieving a stick.
Perhaps the most important and impressive behavior Frohn trained Flippy to practice was the very first husbandry behavior. In 1954, Frohn trained Flippy to swim into a stretcher that had been lowered into his pool. Attached to a hoist, Flippy was taught to lie in his stretcher while being lifted from the water. Such training had multiple benefits besides animal welfare, including a reduction in the manpower needed to deliver vitamins and medications when necessary, which were almost always delivered via an injection in the 1950s.
Flippy was introduced to the press on February 28, 1951. Overnight, he became a national celebrity. In a single month, his picture appeared in over 3,800 newspapers that circulated over 40 million copies. Another 50 million people saw Flippy on newsreels at the movie theater. Television shorts were estimated to reach over 15 million people. In July 1952, Marine Studios unveiled an exciting and ambitious plans to build a 1,000-seat stadium, where Flippy, Splash, and Algae would be featured. With the stadium completed in early 1954, the dolphins were presented in three scheduled training demonstrations a day by March.
In 1950, Marine Studios officially became Marineland of Florida and welcomed as many as 500,000 guests per year. In 2006, the facility closed, undergoing modern renovations, and reopened as Marineland’s Dolphin Conservation Center. In 2011, Georgia Aquarium Inc. acquired the historic facility, and renamed it Marineland Dolphin Adventure. In addition to dolphins, today guests can see turtles, rays, sharks, and other fish. Today, the facility serves as a way to educate, inspire, and connect the public to aquatic life, while also continuing the advancement of research, breeding, and veterinary practices.
As you can see, so much of what fascinates and draws us to dolphins – their social behavior, trainability, and interactions with people – was first discovered at Marineland Dolphin Adventure. To learn more about Marineland Dolphin Adventure, please visit www.marineland.net. For more information about the history of Marineland Dolphin Adventure, check out the book “Marineland” by Cheryl Messinger and Terran McGinnis. To stay up-to-date on all things Dolphin Awareness Month, follow Georgia Aquarium on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram using #DolphinAwarenessMonth.