By: Grace Cunningham (writer / photographer)
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Facing public backlash after the release of films such as the 2013 documentary “Blackfish”, parks and aquariums housing marine life have had to address the perpetuated rumors of poor animal care ethics. Though promotions of trained dolphin shows and similar attractions used to get visitors through the door, marine parks are now having to assert to the public their efforts toward conservation and education. Marineland Dolphin Adventure, located in St. Augustine, Fla., has been operating for 77 years, but is continuously in the process of improving its facility to ensure the enlightenment of visitors and excellent care of its resident marine life.
Marineland Dolphin Adventure, commonly referred to as simply Marineland, opened in June 1938 as Marine Studios, a facility of unprecedented nature in that it allowed underwater filmmaking. The first of its kind and a huge success, Marine Studios garnered thousands of visitors on its opening day. Visitors were able to catch a glimpse of the then-mysterious ocean through the porthole windows of the world’s first oceanarium. Unlike aquariums, oceanariums do not split up species into separate tanks. Their goal is to simulate the actual ocean environment, including each species as they would exist together in the wild.
“Here, you are literally recreating the ocean”, said Terran McGinnis, Manager of Education and Community Development at Marineland.
Not long after the facility opened, researchers and visitors alike began to recognize the distinct characteristics of Marineland’s now-famous residents: dolphins. By displaying the dolphins, Marineland gave the species positive exposure, moving individuals with no prior knowledge or those with negative attitudes toward dolphins to begin to love them. Though dolphin training and trained dolphin shows were first developed at Marineland, visitors eventually fell in love with the dolphins to the point that watching a show just wasn’t enough. The facility began developing interactive programs, which became and continue to be Marineland’s most popular attraction. However, despite generalized claims that marine parks mistreat their animals, Marineland’s main priority is its resident marine life.
Developing from a film studio to a flourishing tourist attraction to, finally, its current status of a center of education and conservation, Marineland puts its residents first. The original oceanarium tank and dolphin show area have been demolished, and in 2006 Marineland redebuted as a conservation-based facility focused on marine life research and rehabilitation, quality marine life care, and community education. Neptune Park is an area of Marineland that is dedicated to specific rehabilitation and research projects. Currently visiting Neptune Park is Rocky, a sea turtle who suffered severe injuries from a boat and is being monitored and cared for by Marineland staff. In a nearby pool is a group of sand tiger sharks who were relocated from the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta in hopes of encouraging breeding by moving the sharks from an indoor environment to a more natural, outdoor environment. So far, the attempt has been successful. Mating behavior has increased since the relocation to Marineland. McGinnis said that, in Neptune Park, public display is simply a secondary component to the main goal of helping the animals recuperate and thrive.
All around Marineland, there are signs and diagrams highlighting conservation tools, dolphin facts, and various training procedures and purposes. Make no mistake – dolphin training is still a very central part of Marineland. However, rather than training the dolphins to do tricks for entertainment, Marineland trainers have focused their efforts on husbandry training. In other words, the dolphins are being trained to voluntarily participate in medical procedures. For instance, the trainers will teach the dolphins to jump up onto the ledge of the pool onto a flatbed scale in order to weigh them. These procedures are especially important for the research and well-being of the dolphins.
All training at Marineland is based on operant conditioning in that the dolphins are rewarded when they complete the desired action. If a dolphin isn’t as willing to participate in the exercise, the trainer may simply walk away. There are no punishments administered to animals who do not necessarily obey. The reinforcement of desired behavior makes for an all-around positive training experience for the dolphin.
As for the rumors presented in films such as “Blackfish”, McGinnis explained an understandable frustration.
“In this field, we’ll work 24-hour days caring for the animals – on holidays, on our birthdays – and when people say we’re bad to the animals, it’s heartbreaking”, McGinnis said. “It feels like a personal attack”.
While there is an obvious irritation with her profession being portrayed negatively, McGinnis also said that the outcry exposes the animal lovers and turns out to be a little ironic.
“You feel the way you feel because you once fell in love with an animal at a zoo or aquarium,” McGinnis said in response to questions of marine park protesters. “You’re doing what you’re doing because you’re an animal lover”.
They present obstacles to places like Marineland, but McGinnis has found a possible positive byproduct of those who oppose marine parks.
“The more people who are out there loving animals, the better”, McGinnis said.
Looking further than the rehabilitation of rescued animals or the prosperity of those born at the facility, McGinnis said that the work being done at Marineland definitely has the potential to make a difference on a much grander scale. Marineland is built right on the Atlantic coast. McGinnis said that a special opportunity offered by the seaside location is that guests can visit with the dolphins, make a connection with them, and then turn around, see the ocean, and change their behavior toward the environment. By offering educational and interactive programs to all ages, Marineland has allowed guests to fall in love with the creatures and create a personal experience that they can relate to the creatures in the wild. However, McGinnis said that nobody really needs convincing to like dolphins, and that even kindergartners are regularly being taught positive environmental practices.
“Everyone knows you should recycle, but what we do is give them a reason to care”, McGinnis said. “Now, more than ever, what we need to do is inspire people”.