Thursday, June 23, 1938, was a big day for Marineland. Dignitaries from St. Augustine and Daytona Beach joined state officials, a former U.S. senator and more than 30,000 members of the public to celebrate the grand opening of what was then called Marineland Studios in a ceremony that was broadcast live on the radio.
Located south of St. Augustine, just over the St. Johns County border County on A1A, Marineland was billed as “the world’s first oceanarium” and featured tanks filled with hundreds of thousands of gallons of water with glass-viewing portholes where visitors could see an assortment of marine life, such as sharks, turtles and other local sea animals.
Shortly after celebrating its 83rd anniversary, Marineland partnered with the St. Augustine Historical Society to publicly display some of the items in its collection.
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One of Florida’s first attractions
Originally built for filming underwater scenes movies, Marineland was the set for hundreds of films, including “Creature from the Black Lagoon” in 1954.
“They wanted to recreate the ocean so that filmmakers could film through the porthole windows and make it look like they were in the ocean,” said Terron McGinnis, a marine biologist and park historian.
“On opening day, when 30,000 people showed up, they realized that this community might have more of a need for a public educational aquarium than for a film studio,” McGinnis said.
Although still a working film studio, Marineland opened to visitors, making it one of Florida’s first destination attractions; its mission focused on education, not just entertainment.
“The oceans were seen as a very dangerous place, and all the animals who lived in the ocean were seen as something we should kill, either because it was going to kill us if we didn’t kill it first or we wanted to eat it,” McGinnis said. “Marineland worked to change that from the beginning.”
The park grew over the years to include a hotel, campground, gift shop, and restaurant and lounge that was famous for its rocking bar shaped like a boat.
“The bartender could flip a switch and the whole bar would rock,” McGinnis said.
Norton Baskin, the husband of author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, managed the lounge, called the Moby Dick, which was frequented by their friend Ernest Hemmingway.
In 1947, Marineland announced the birth of the first bottlenose dolphin born in captivity and, in the 1950s, the park started what was one of the first trained dolphin shows in the world.
With attendance of more than 500,000 people a year, the park became a destination for countless school field trips and family vacations in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
Sentimental walk down memory lane
Throughout its history, Marineland has kept the vast majority of its records. According to McGinnis, the archives include payroll ledgers from the 1930s; building blueprints; movie posters, scripts and cameras; records of the animals and their health; and lots of photographs — more than 300,000 items.
The exhibit opened on the second floor of the historic Tovar House on the grounds of the historical society’s Oldest House Museum complex on St. Francis Street in St. Augustine this spring.
Displaying photographs, movie cameras and posters from its archives, the museum is a fascinating look at the historic attraction.
“The museum is meant to do a couple of things,” McGinnis said. “One is to be for folks who already know Marineland because they grew up in this area, and so they grew up going on field trips to Marineland or they worked at Marineland — it is a fun, sentimental walk down memory lane. Then for people who have never been to Marineland; folks from out of town. This is a chance to show them that there is still history to be experienced even if you venture out of the downtown heart of St. Augustine.”
Visitors can see a photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit, movie stills and posters from “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” a 16mm movie camera used in the park in the 1930s and a diving suit that was used when feeding fish. The suit was connected to the surface by a hose and was supplied with air by a manual pump.
A special part of the museum features Nellie, Marineland’s most famous resident. Born there in 1953, the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin was the world’s oldest dolphin in human care when she died at the park in 2014.
Nellie performed in tens of thousands of dolphin shows and several TV shows and commercials. Along with photos of Nellie, a certificate naming her an honorary Jacksonville University Dolphin from 1970 is also displayed.
Additionally, the exhibit includes items from the restaurant and lounge.
“For a lot of the locals, the most sentimental thing about Marineland wasn’t the dolphins or the animal exhibits,” McGinnis said. “It was the amazing restaurant and the bar. Think of how many first dates, engagements and special occasions happened there.”
Marineland has undergone major renovations since 1938, and is open seven days a week to see its dolphins, turtles and sharks. The facility also offers a program where visitors can swim with dolphins.
The Oldest House is open from daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tours run every half hour and admission is free to St. Johns County residents.
The museum is located across from the National Guard at 14 St. Francis St. in St. Augustine.
For information, call 904-824-2872.