Remembering the AQUATARIUM
by Greg May
GREG MAY with baby pilot whales
In 1955 the Miami Seaquarium opened on 55 acres of reclaimed tideland of Virginia Key. It was hailed as the world's largest tropical oceanarium and was the "state of the art" of the existing oceanaria, Marineland of Florida and Marineland of the Pacific.
In fact, the Seaquarium was a "thorn in Marineland's blubber" because they hired away three key personnel from Marineland. The first was Adolph Frohn, who trained the first dolphin, "Flippy" at Marineland in 1950. The second was Captain William Gray, who stocked the huge tanks with everything from sawfish to seahorses. And the third was Craig Phillips, a Marineland aquarist who brought the secret of maintaining marine life in captivity with him to the new Seaquarium.
That "secret" was a chemical compound called copper sulphate, which destroyed algae and bacteria without harming the fish. Since water clarity was paramount in an oceanarium, Marineland kept this "secret" under lock and key for many years to avoid competition.
Craig Phillips' knowledge of copper sulphate earned him the title of Curator for the Seaquarium.
The Seaquarium was an instant success and since it was such a big money-maker, several corporations vied to buy it. The company that won the bid was Wometco Enterprises, a vending machine company that also owned and operated radio and television stations throughout Florida.
One of the Seaquarium's original investors, Carl Selph, took his share of the money from the buyout and began planning a new oceanarium on St. Petersburg Beach under the title, Marine Attractions, Inc.
After three years of planning and construction, the
AQUATARIUM opened June 1964 as "The World's Greatest Marine Show". This was quite a boast considering the fact that it occupied only 17 acres, with one third of that for parking lot.
But what the AQUATARIUM consisted of was a colossal circular building that encompassed the world's largest circular marine tank: 100 ft. in diameter, 25 ft. deep and containing 1,244,000 gallons of seawater. This was twice the size of existing oceanaria up until 1979 when AQUATARIUM closed.
Since the owners had ties with Seaquarium, they borrowed the idea of a golden geodesic dome to shelter the audiences while enjoying the sea lion and dolphins shows in another tank.
My first visit to the AQUATARIUM took place in 1969. I was so excited since the only other oceanarium I had visited up until this time was Marineland. (see "Gone But Not Forgotten" on this website). The following year, I fell in love with their two baby pilot whales that had been rescued from a stranding on Longboat Key.
I will always remember the AQUATARIUM for that is where I met two friends, Vic Aderholt and Mike Brown. Vic was employed with Ocean World in Ft. Lauderdale and happened to be visiting AQUATARIUM while Mike was showing me around. Mike was the dolphin trainer who worked the Top Deck show in the main tank. Each show
was climaxed by a spectacular 25-ft. jump by "Floppy" who was no doubt the highest jumping dolphin in the world.
In 1976 AQUATARIUM changed its name to SHARK WORLD to cash in on the "Jaws Mania" that was sweeping the nation and to boost a sagging attendance. The main tank was now modified to house several species of sharks that were captured and acclimated by Gerry and Mary Lou Klay of SharkQuarium in the Florida Keys.
Unfortunately, the sharks could not take a bite out of the tourist industry flowing into Orlando to see Disney World and Sea World, so AQUATARIUM/SHARK WORLD closed
forever in 1979.