The longest-running marine aquarium on the Gulf Coast of Florida continues to make people happy after more than 60 years.
Though it’s a small marine aquarium, the Gulfarium’s influence continues to be felt throughout the Sunshine State through its programs and quality of service to visitors. The importance of the history of the attraction can’t be ignored either.
The Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park is located in Ft. Walton Beach on oceanfront property. Ft. Walton is one of the many small seaside vacation spots in Florida’s Panhandle, an area that thankfully remains less developed than much of Florida’s coast. The area also lacks the large theme parks and zoos that populate central and south Florida, though it does have beautiful and interesting state parks, national seashores and forests and other attractions that are well worth a visit to the area.
Due to its somewhat isolated location, the Gulfarium is less well known, even to longtime Floridians from other parts of the state. This is a shame, because it continues to be a fascinating attraction with much to share as well as a valuable educational resource.
Opened in 1955, the same year Disneyland opened, the Gulfarium wasn’t the first oceanarium in Florida. That distinction goes to Marine Studios (later renamed Marineland) south of St. Augustine, the first park (1938) of that sort in the world. The Gulfarium was at the start of a 1950s wave of marine parks (or oceanariums) that sprung up in the state. Unlike typical aquariums, marine parks in Florida usually include dolphins, sea lions, manatees, large sea turtles and not surprisingly, alligators. Eventually, about a dozen marine parks would operate in Florida.
The Gulfarium began with the ideas of one person, though it would take his family and many others to see the ideas set in concrete, steel and wood. Unlike many attractions, marine parks can’t start simply and inexpensively. Requiring at least one large pool, equipment to provide a steady supply of clean seawater and additional necessary facilities, the process of building such a park requires both significant amounts of time and money.
John Brandon Siebenaler (1925-2000) was born in Daytona Beach and would find his way to the University of Miami for a degree in marine biology. Brandy, as he was known to family and friends, would be the driving force behind the creation of the Gulfarium and its development over the decades. He started by approaching business leaders in the Panhandle on the idea of an marine aquarium as a major tourist draw to the area. He would pair that with a scientific research center.
Siebenaler was joined in the work by his wife Marjorie (1927-1971), who was also from Daytona Beach and their young son John Gregory “Greg” (1952-2010). According to the family, Marjorie grew up terrified of the ocean – a fact she didn’t mention to her husband until after the Gulfarium was built. They would eventually be joined by daughter Karen and younger son Brandon.
The community responded favorably with 50 locals becoming investors, joining 15 marine scientists from the University of Miami in 1954 to begin the process of creating the Gulfarium. Okaloosa Island in Ft. Walton Beach was chosen as the location and construction began quickly.
The Gulfarium was built by Gulf Exhibition Corporation at a cost of $500,000. Two local men headed the corporation: Holton Hudson, president and Thomas E. Brooks, chairman of the board. The three other members of the board were Lloyd Bell Jr., William Fisher Jr. and Brandy Siebenaler.
Raw steel wasn’t exactly plentiful so soon after World War Two, so the main dolphin enclosure was built of scrap steel from battleships in Mississippi. Eleven months later, the habitat was completed along with much of the rest of the facility. The attraction opened to the public in August 1955.
The main habitat initially functioned as a multi-purpose structure that showcased not only the Gulfarium’s dolphins, but fish, stingrays, sea turtles and sharks. The habitat was billed as the “Living Sea Exhibit” and there were around 120 windows on two levels below the water’s surface to view the sea life. One of the highlights in the early years was a regular shark feeding by a diver in scuba gear.
The real stars of the Gulfarium were (and still are) the dolphins and their skills at jumping and touching targets. Trainers working with dolphins was first developed in Florida and in the late 1950s, several parks were learning and developing the process. The groundbreaking work with dolphins help lead to the development of the field of animal behavioral science.
In the early years, everyone who worked for the Gulfarium typically helped out wherever they could, regardless of what their official job was. This was particularly so for the Siebenalers. In fact, it wasn’t too long before Marjorie had little choice but to face her fears of the ocean and work directly in the pools with the dolphins and fish. Once she learned to accept the new role, she actually grew to love working with the sealife and became one of the Gulfarium’s most important trainers.
The construction of additional pools and other displays soon followed and Siebenaler’s promise was fulfilled. The park was successful, it helped bring tourists to the area and it became an important research facility. A separate Living Sea was added along with habitats for sea lions, seals, otters and alligators.
The Gulfarium was the first large human-made attraction in Florida’s Panhandle. It also boasted other firsts. It was the first park to use the Jaques Cousteau inspired scuba gear instead of the full-helmet gear (picture 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) during performances. This allowed its divers to swim freely rather than walk on the floor of the pools, tied to hoses pumping air to them from the surface. It also developed the first artificial dolphin baby formula to keep alive the first successful attempt to raise a rescued baby dolphin – a formula which is still in use today.
The Florida Panhandle never had a huge boom in tourism. Certainly, the 1950s and 1960s were busy years, but it was the peninsula that collected the lion’s share of northern tourists. The Gulfarium pretty much stood alone as a major tourist attraction among hundreds of miles of some of the whitest sand beaches in the US. Nature and the city of Pensacola’s history were the only other main draws for visitors.
Even though there wasn’t a boom in the Panhandle, there really wasn’t a bust, either. The Interstate highways that transformed the tourist habits in the rest of Florida didn’t have that much effect. Interstate 10 runs east and west through the center of the Panhandle and only passes about 25 miles north of the park. Most visitors to the Miracle Strip, as the seashore in the area is known, use the close-by and much slower road US Route 98, much as their parents and grandparents might have done in the past.
The Gulfarium struggled with a series of major hurricanes that hit the area in recent decades, but the park continues to offer dolphin and sea lion shows that focus on conservation and natural behaviors. They have sharks that swim in a proper circular pool (sharks have difficulty with sharp turns) and have African penguins, alligators, sea turtles and many more animals on display and their staff is as dedicated and friendly as Brandy and Marjorie were when the doors first opened.
The Gulfarium is one of the finest attractions in the state. One where visitors can have fun, learn about nature and ecology and come away with possibly a mind-broadening experience.