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Behind the Seas at Marineland in St. Augustine
The grinning Atlantic bottlenose dolphin floated quietly on her back in one of the pools at Marineland Dolphin Adventure as a little girl leaned over the wall to stroke her belly. But it wasn’t just another public touch-the-dolphin encounter.
“The poses they do for the guests are actual behaviors,” explained tour guide Alexis Miller, adding that the veterinarians who care for the dozen or so marine mammals at the St. Augustine attraction use the dolphins’ supine position to conduct medical examinations or draw blood.
“The trainers ask them to do things–they are not forced,” Miller said of the hand gestures made by the animals’ human handlers. “Sometimes, they have to take a moment.”
These were among the eye-opening factoids I learned on a recent “Behind the Seas” tour at the refurbished 78-year-old facility next to the Atlantic Ocean. What began as Marine Studios in 1938– a backstage water tank designed for movie shoots–now is an interactive park as well as a research and community center. Besides interacting with dolphins, Marineland offers photography workshops, lectures, and a popular venue for weddings. Also, they are an accredited member of the Alliance of Marine Mammals Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA), dedicated to the well-being of dolphins and other marine mammals in human care and in the wild.
Most of the dolphins have lived here in this 1.3-million gallon tank their entire lives, including Betty, now in her 40s, and Nellie, who was 61 when she died in 2014. This is where scientists discovered the animals’ powers of echolocation–discerning a person, animal or object by projecting sound waves and listening for echoes as the sound waves bounce off the target.
The dolphins are fun to watch; they played hoops and practiced rushing a football clamped in their jaws when I visited. They splashed some guests who ventured close to their pool, and I even saw a baby dolphin nursing from its mother.
Miller and volunteer Nick Williams escorted me below-decks to observe some of the other creatures housed at Marineland: a green moray eel, angelfish, three diamondback terrapins; horse-eye jacks; triggerfish, pompano; stingrays; and a very clever octopus that toys with a Mr. Potatohead and possesses a Houdini-like facility for escaping its tank.
Marineland also has some fierce-looking but actually quite docile sand tiger sharks in one of its smaller tanks.