In the spring of 1961, The San Diego Union ran a beguiling spread in the Sunday newspaper. Stories of commercial development were common—the city had seen staggering growth for 20 years. But the March 26th edition struck locals as extraordinary. A rare underwater photograph showed a man in a diving mask surrounded by fish. The scene appeared beneath the cryptic headline, “A Playground for Citizens of Land and Sea.”
What could it mean?
That Mission Bay, a summer resort area, would soon feature “an aquatic playground,” the story explained, “where trained whales will perform, where sharks will race around a circular pool, where the public may watch and study other strange forms of marine life.” It would operate as a for-profit venture, aiming to be Earth’s most ambitious ocean theme-park. And San Diego would have its answer to Disneyland, which had recently begun drawing tourists to Anaheim, 100 miles to the north.
San Diegans were intrigued.
The sea held greater mystery in 1961 than it would in later decades, when Shark Week began airing on basic cable and honeymooners returned home with albums full of snorkeling photos. Today, scuba certification is offered at community colleges. Back then, the earliest commercial diving gear was an exotic luxury item. Neither Flipper nor The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau had yet debuted. There were aquariums and even early marine parks in a few corners of the country, but that didn’t change the fact that when most people looked out at the ocean, they could scarcely visualize what lay beneath the surface. Day trips to the San Diego Zoo brought patrons face to face with animals from South America, Asia, and Africa. Most were less familiar with life indigenous to local waters: octopus, porpoises, whales, even the tuna that wound up on their plates. The prospect of seeing these creatures up close couldn’t fail to tickle their imaginations.
The city was considering two different proposals from competing entrepreneurs. The newspaper didn’t declare a favorite, but it lavished far more display art and column inches on “Sealand,” a plan put forth by local businessmen. They envisioned 70 acres of grounds, huge pools surrounded by stadium seating, even “an attempt to capture a deadly killer whale to swim with sharks in a large, doughnut- shaped ring.” Today, the Sealand proposal looks like a portent of the orca shows that would come to dominate the industry. In 1961, no one knew if sharks or killer whales could survive in captivity—let alone be trained to perform.
Biologists could have advised that a show with marine predators chasing one another would have been short-lived. But even if Sealand’s plan seemed implausible, the glowing write-up worried a group of rival entrepreneurs from Los Angeles. Would their Marine Park Corporation get a fair shake? They were pitching farther from home and their proposal didn’t include anything as extreme as a killer whale chasing sharks. In fact, the men behind the project—all alumni of one UCLA fraternity— hadn’t envisioned capturing a killer whale at all. Now they could only bide their time as L.E. Earnest, Director of Mission Bay Park, reviewed their market study, site designs, and imagined attractions. Weeks passed before the winners were chosen.
I first learned about the origins of SeaWorld, which opened 50 years ago, on March 21, 1964, through a high school classmate, later the best man in my wedding. We were 14 when he began relating the exploits of his grandfather, Milton C. Shedd, one of the UCLA alumni who won the competition. Best known as SeaWorld’s co-founder (the accomplishment in the headline of his New York Times obituary), Shedd was also its longtime Chairman of the Board, a celebrated ocean conservationist, an inductee into the sportfishing hall of fame, and a decorated WWII hero.
For several years, I’ve been writing the story of his life for his family. My research has unearthed lots of little-known details about the oceanarium he started. For example, it operated for nearly two years before acquiring Shamu, its biggest star.
But forget the institution that we know—the most famous, influential, and profitable oceanarium in history, an object of adoration as well as intense criticism (most recently in the film Blackfish, which critiques keeping killer whales in captivity and focuses on the death of a trainer). As SeaWorld’s golden anniversary begins, I’d like to revel in a fleeting moment just before the park opened—a time when the vision of its founders was no more than hopeful words, images, and figures on a page.
Determined to create planet Earth’s most ambitious marine park, Shedd and his buddies—George Millay, Ken Norris, and Dave DuMotte—pushed themselves to consider what might be possible if roughly $15 million (in today’s dollars) were spent on newfangled display tanks and marine mammal shows unlike any previously attempted. Some of their ideas would delight audiences three years later, on the drizzly Saturday morning when SeaWorld of San Diego welcomed its first guests.
Other ideas delighted on the page, but would never exist.
Thanks to the proposal submitted to San Diego, we can envision even those notions that proved impossible–and the marine park that might have been in a world with fewer financial, technological, or biological limits. That moment, before imagination was hemmed in by reality, is vividly captured in “A Visit to Marine Park,” the only narrative section in the pitch and its heart and soul. Readers accompany a pretend family on a tour of the park.
This is our only chance to visit.
Let us join them, “a husband and wife in their middle 30s, together with their two children.” They are part of that great postwar trend: families who have more time for recreation and spend it together—often on car trips, for the nation’s new freeway system permitted the middle class to venture farther from home for pleasure. Entering the main gate, these tourists observe “the artistic effect of the buildings, the ample shade and rest areas,” plus a reflecting pool, where father suggests a photograph.
A nearby attraction soon beckons.
Unsure what to expect, they descend to an underground amphitheater: a semicircle with 500 tiered seats, sloping down to where a stage might be—but in its place is a darkened wall of glass as big as a cinema screen, and behind it, murky water. The house lights are up. Shapes are just visible if the gathering audience strains its eyes. “As they speculate, the grotto dims down just as the light level in the water increases,” Marine Park Corporation’s proposal states. “Then we see the first sensation—a body plunges through the water, trailing a necklace of silver-blue air bubbles. The sound of this action fills the auditorium.” The audience is rapt.
With the underwater world illuminated, the family is confronted with a smiling skin diver—and he makes an underwater bow! Amazingly, his voice fills the auditorium. He explains that he’s able to speak thanks to a special underwater microphone in his diving mask, and adds that the amphitheater was built so his friends could entertain in the medium where their agility and beauty would be best appreciated.
The next 20 minutes brings a parade of marine creatures to the spotlight. Sister laughs as eight trained penguins arrive in formation, then perform a series of “underwater frills” that “display their grace in an underwater element, and with comic dignity delight their audience.” Moments later, trained porpoises arrive on scene, where they “perform incredible and beautiful feats, including ‘dancing’ to the music of a popular ballet. They tow their trainer through an obstacle course and chase mechanical fish like greyhounds.” The dolphins are blindfolded, so “we wonder at their ability to locate targets and run mazes.” Mother enjoys their grace.
The whole family is soon at a nearby attraction, an aquarium where “junior is entranced at the six foot sand tiger shark in his hexagonal tank.” There are “archer fish and electric eels,” the “strange beauty of flower-like, cold water anemones,” and a slithering octopus. Outside is a souvenir booth, where visitors could purchase full color photographs or 35 mm slides of what they’d seen. But junior has no time to shop. The roar of a boat’s engine sends him scurrying down a landscaped path. Deposited on a wooden dock, a sleek hydrofoil craft looms before him:
Noting the make-up of the crowd, it’s obvious that this is an attraction with high appeal for teenagers ... There’s practically no water motion as you get underway. All you’re conscious of is a feeling of skimming out over Perez Cove, the colorful shoreline of San Diego’s beach area, the sunlight-bright friendly blue waters of this famous bay all combine to make a perfect setting for our adventure. Fellow passengers share your exhilaration as you tour at a leisurely pace. Now from the bridge the skipper announces he’ll make two test speed runs down one of the world’s most famous racing boat courses. He admonishes you to secure your hats. The engines surge towards full power, you’re aware only of the wind sweeping by, there is no feeling of striking through the choppy water around you, the bow rises slightly as your speed increases. Your fellow passengers are now excitedly gripping the rails. Here and there a bright colored buoy flashes by.
These hydrofoils would be part of the actual oceanarium when it opened three years later. As someone who rode them enthusiastically in childhood, I can attest that at 50 miles-per-hour, it seemed as if the other boats on Mission Bay were standing still.
When San Diego officials committed to an oceanarium at Mission Bay they had some reason to believe it would succeed, for SeaWorld was not the first institution to rely on ocean creatures for its draw. One of the earliest, Marine Studios, opened hear Jacksonville, Florida in 1938. Its founder, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, admired the nascent motion picture industry for its ability to captivate audiences of all ages. He thought museums and other educational institutions could better accomplish their mission by mimicking the movie experience, and wanted to test his idea. He created “a cream-colored aquarium, pitted with tempered glass portholes, and resembling a stranded Caribbean cruiser,” as a WPA guide described it. “Each observer can sit comfortably in relative darkness,” a partner explained, as though “in a motion picture theater, looking out into a brilliant world of the undersea.” How better to experience the underwater world?
Marine Studios was an immediate success.
Twenty thousand people attended its grand opening, visitors delighted in seeing marine creatures in their element, and tanks were equipped with motion picture recording equipment—a boon to biologists, who could suddenly observe underwater behavior as never before, and to Hollywood, which would film underwater scenes at the facility.
When dolphin training began in the 1950s, the studio’s foremost talent, a bottle-nose named Flippy, appeared in the big-budget film Revenge of the Creature. Flippy’s fame helped Marine Studios reinvent itself as Marineland, a major tourist spot that attracted up to half-a-million visitors annually. At the time, dolphins seemed like they would always be the biggest draw at any marine theme park.
Imitators sprung up in Florida—Miami Seaquarium opened a 38-acre facility, featuring a 600,000 gallon pool for performing dolphins—and in time, the concept spread to the West Coast. San Diego officials, as well as SeaWorld’s founders, were influenced most powerfully by Marineland of the Pacific. Conceived in 1949 but postponed by the Korean War, the facility opened on the out-of-the-way Palos Verdes peninsula, just south of Santa Monica Bay, on August 28, 1954. That first day, a crowd of 14,000 gathered before what one account called the largest collection of marine animals ever assembled. Interest would gradually fade.
The venture lost money in 1955, according to A Photographic History Back to the Marineland of the Pacific by Jim Patryla. In response, a new vice-president of operations was hired, and he presided over a shift: Rather than merely educate patrons, Marineland would endeavor to entertain them with scripted animal shows. In 1957, the oceanarium acquired a pilot whale, the first ever captured on the open ocean. Its presence pushed attendance past 1 million visitors, and Mr. Bimbo, the largest pilot whale in captivity, was added in 1959. It was no coincidence that Marine Park’s proposal included both scripted shows and a pilot whale.
When we left our family of four, they had stopped for lunch at the “Yacht Club Snack Shop,” with its “gleaming white clapboard front, heavy shingled overhang roof” and woodwork “reminiscent of Cape Cod.” They ate fast, for they’d consulted a schedule and wanted to see the next show at Lagoon Park, the most ambitious attraction described. “Almost completely enclosed by beautifully landscaped, sloping berms, this enchanting setting is the location of the park’s outdoor aquatic zoo,” the proposal explained. “The Lagoon becomes... a stage, and from any one of several informal seating areas around its perimeter, we and other guests can enjoy a show with porpoise, elephant seals, walrus, and even a great White Whale." The action plays out over the whole lagoon, beginning just as the family sits beneath the shade of an acacia tree and sees movement:
We note a young man poling a small gaily colored skiff from the shore out into the Lagoon. As he glides effortlessly over the surface, he introduces himself and points out the various features of the area and then proceeds to introduce us to his live “cast.” He holds his throat mike to the surface of the water and three sea lions break the surface, barking into the mike as they acknowledge their individual introductions. He comments on the intelligence and unique characteristics of the California sea lion and advises us that these three, “Milt, George, and Dave,” are really a three sea lion powered outboard engine, and their favorite sport—towing skiffs!
So he affixes harnesses and a tow rope to these sea lions, executes a predetermined signal, “and sure enough, he’s away, the three sea lions happily barking as they swim in unison around the lagoon while their human companion demonstrates different balancing techniques on his ‘sea lion’ board.”
The era’s corny humor comes through in the next passage. The trainer is doing a difficult, one-footed pose: “The sea lions, hearing the applause, stop dead—and our ‘startled’ trainer takes a dunking in the Lagoon, much to the delight of the audience. After recovering his composure, and returning to the skiff, the trainer explains the ‘accident,’ claiming it’s really professional jealousy on the sea lion’s part.”
Delighted as they were, the family hadn’t yet seen the part of the show that they’d remember most. It wasn’t the sea lion finale, nor the six porpoises racing around the perimeter of the lagoon like thoroughbred horses (the audience cheering for their favorites by the numbers on their backs), nor the penguins waiting at the finish line to declare a winner. What these visitors would later recall most vividly was the finale, “repeated eight times daily,” when the animal trainer, back aboard his skiff, poled to the middle of the lagoon and summoned its largest, heretofore-unseen resident: “Sniffles, a 20-foot pilot whale.” The improbable climax:
Obligingly, this behemoth of the deep appears, and is introduced with a few facts, both interesting and amusing about her character and personality. Then the Master of Ceremonies pats the beast on her “forehead” and steps unconcernedly from the boat to her back! Standing on her like a circus bareback rider, she begins to move slowly around the Lagoon and the audience, until the trainer has her “heave to” for passengers—a troupe of delightful penguins who, on the approach of Sniffles, have lined up in orderly fashion on the shore line, and then swim out to “board” Sniffles. Their dignified appearance delights the audience and when, at the orders of their trainer, they line up for “vest inspection,” delight turns to waves of laughter and applause. What follows is a wonderful display of their intelligence and adaptability as the Master of Ceremonies puts them through various “close order” military drills, right on the back of Sniffles, who meanwhile cruises slowly around the Lagoon, occasionally flicking her tail as though she meant to shoo these “flies” off her generous back. It was an impossible act to top and a fitting conclusion for a most unusual and fascinating show.
To my enduring disappointment, I’ve never been able to determine if the earliest SeaWorld trainers attempted to teach penguins military marches on the back of a pilot whale.
Even without elaborately choreographed animal performances, any well-executed theme park that opened on Mission Bay in the early 1960s would have enjoyed several advantages. All five Southern California counties expected significant population growth, the University of California was set to open campuses at San Diego and Irvine, and several major residential communities were being planned within an hour’s drive of the park. The Mission Bay site was also seconds away from a soon-to-be-constructed portion of Interstate 5, which would make it far more freeway-accessible than Marineland. Economic Research Associates forecast that by 1966, 1.1 million people would live within a 30 minute drive of Mission Bay, and 3.3 million people would live within two hours’ driving distance.
How far would patrons travel? The Stanford Research Institute had discovered that roughly a quarter of San Diego Zoo patrons traveled more than 200 miles to visit.
To be as successful, SeaWorld would need to be diverting enough to compete with amusement parks, even as it focused on its comparative advantage as an ocean-aquarium. From its earliest planning stages, SeaWorld was a hybrid of these two visions, in large part because they mirrored the different instincts of its founders.
Millay understood that marine creatures would appeal to the public, but they weren't his passion. He loved well-crafted, family-friendly entertainment of any sort. The hydrofoils were included at his urging, based on similar craft he'd once seen on the Hudson River. Over the years, the park would add similar attractions, such as sky-gondolas and a whitewater rafting ride. Given the choice, he would have rather been P.T. Barnum than Jacques Cousteau. After leaving SeaWorld, he went on to found a successful chain of water slide parks.
Shedd, on the other hand, had been fascinated by fish since childhood, and would have delighted in life as an underwater explorer. He believed from the start that Marine Park’s success as a business would depend mostly on its ability to exploit and stoke humans’ natural interest in the ocean. As he would later insist to potential investors, “Your investment in SeaWorld is a means by which you can participate in the public’s ever-growing fascination and curiosity about the marine environment.” Adventure rides and cute, scripted animal shows might be necessary to entertain, but they would never be sufficient to succeed as a business, or to fulfill SeaWorld's social mission.
Their day at Marine Park almost over, the family fits in a final attraction, one meant to educate as much as it entertains. It showcases “many of the most interesting, colorful, and even dangerous species” that live along coral reefs, in tropical seas, or on the California coastline. A group of 80 visitors gather and learn that their guide will be Tina, “a Javanese girl.” As they descend underground, beads of moisture appear on an aquarium wall. “What a spectacle!” the proposal declares. “We are gazing through clear glass into a beautifully reconstructed underseas reef. Various unusual small fish of brilliant hues dart among the rocks, the coral settings, and forms of seaweed that grow luxuriantly in the magic setting."
Soon, the tourists are met by “an attractive young lady clad in a Polynesian-designed swimsuit and carrying her scuba equipment.” She’ll conduct the tour underwater, she explains, while the group follows on the dry side of the glass. She is equipped with an underwater microphone. Microphones are also spaced at regular intervals on the dry side of the exhibit, to accommodate questions from patrons.
At first, it seems as if Tina will swim from one display to the next. In fact, she has no need to propel herself. “Let me introduce you to my private undersea taxi service, Herman,” she says. “Almost on cue,” the proposal states, “a huge green turtle shakes his flippers as Tina boosts herself gracefully aboard her shell-backed companion.” Straddling the turtle’s back as it swims, she describes various flora and fauna with easy expertise until it’s time to dismount and enter a grotto containing tiny Gulf of California harbor porpoises, trained to perform an underwater ballet.
“We are introduced to all the creatures that inhabit our coastline as well as scores of other strange and wonderful residents of the reefs,” the proposal concludes. “We notice that we have gained in this tour through an underwater maze a completely new understanding and appreciation of Nature’s sea creatures. Yet we had enjoyed one of the most entertaining experiences to be had in this aquatic park.” The proposal makes sure to note that at the end of the tour, as the corridor slopes upwards, “our attractive guide emerged at our eye level to bid us goodbye.”
It is time for our family to depart.
They pause only to buy a souvenir. Though more Marine Park attractions remain, they decide to save them for another day, “a resolution well put by junior to his parents as we join them in leaving the park — ‘Daddy, when can we come again, please?’”
There’s no way to know how much the narrative portion of Marine Park Corporation’s proposal swayed San Diego officials, relative to the economic analysis and professional backgrounds presented. It hardly mattered to the winners.
Milt, George, Ken and Dave scarcely had time to celebrate, for they suddenly faced a daunting task: to raise enough money from investors to build the oceanarium that they pitched. They estimated $1.294 million in facilities cost and planned to raise $2.018 million in startup capital ($15.8 million in today’s dollars). That would also cover the purchase of six hydrofoil boats, as well as $26,930 for buying mammals and fish—one fascinating table of figures reveals that circa 1963, an elephant seal on the open market cost $2,000, a harbor seal and a Humboldt penguin each cost $75, a marine turtle cost $20, a trio of harbor porpoises could be acquired for $1,000, and Atlantic bottle-nose dolphins cost $750 each. There was also the cost of the charter flight to get the creatures to the West Coast.
Everything moved quickly after that. Shedd, a stockbroker by trade, began raising capital. Millay started hiring staff and animal trainers. The venture was renamed “SeaWorld” on the advice of E.D. Ettinger, a consultant on loan from Disneyland. And the oceanarium finally commenced business on Saturday, March 21, 1964.
On opening day, there was a lagoon show, but there were no penguins riding whales—Pacific dolphins were the stars. There was no Great Barrier Reef exhibit, and no Javanese guide named Tina, but there were “Sea Maids”—young San Diego women hired to dive down behind giant picture windows to point out aquatic life. The Theater of the Sea, an underwater amphitheater, had been built, but featured simpler behaviors than initially envisioned. The saltwater aquarium made it into the finished park too. And there were other attractions, conceived after the proposal was submitted. Patrons ate and drank in the Hawaiian Punch Village, where they watched color travel films of the South Pacific. Another sponsor, the Murata Pearl Company of Tokyo, spent a million dollars building a traditional Japanese village, and sent Japanese women to dive into a deep pool at its center, harvesting oysters in a traditional fashion and selling pearls to any takers.
By some measures, launch day was a disaster. A skiff ferrying Barry Goldwater to the opening ceremony nearly sank. The toilets overflowed. Water clarity problems, spurred by a red tide and an overwhelmed water filtration system, made the theater show difficult to see. But relief came early the next morning with the San Diego Union.
The newspaper’s verdict:
San Diego's wonderful world of spectator attractions has been expanded tremendously by the addition of SeaWorld, the multimillion dollar extravaganza in Mission Bay Park. SeaWorld is a Wonderland as fascinating as that visited by the fictional Alice. We can make statements such as that without feeling they are tinged by San Diego partisanship. Newsmen from all sections of the state who attended a preview of SeaWorld's wonders said, in effect, “greatest show about the sea on earth.”
When Shamu arrived on December 20, 1965, SeaWorld’s first phase as a business had ended. Had its founders said in their initial proposal that it would, during its second year of operation, fly an orca from the Pacific Northwest to San Diego–a 2,000 pound killer whale, loaded by crane into a cargo jet, flying high above the clouds!–it would have sounded more unlikely to some readers than spurring one to chase sharks, but reality can occasionally surpass imagination. As someone who visited SeaWorld in childhood and could scarcely conceive of a Southern California without an ocean theme park, I’d love to have walked its acres during that first year, when so many visitors were experiencing a place that they’d never even imagined. As long as we’re straying into fantasy, I won’t stop at time machines either. I’ll wish for a device that would let me visit the Marine Park that never was. I want to see what SeaWorld’s creators envisioned, before they knew what was impossible.
All e-mail is welcome, and stories about the early years of SeaWorld, San Diego, are especially encouraged. The author can be reached at email@example.com.