Dolphin Discovery bought Marineland Dolphin Adventure this summer.
This summer, Marineland Dolphin Adventure changed hands with the sale of the facility from the Georgia Aquarium to Dolphin Discovery. But Julie Wendt, assistant supervisor of animal training, said the high-quality care has stayed the same for the marine life there.
“We still give the animals top-notch quality care as far as diet, habitat, learning opportunities, social health (and) emotional health,” she said.
Wendt said that more faces have come to the marine life facility this summer after the change in management, due to a decrease in admission prices, new marketing tactics, new elements in dolphin shows and height restrictions for dolphin programs (instead of age).
“We got some new resources for some new dolphin toys; that’s really exciting for us,” Wendt said. “That just adds to the quality of care. Enrichment is really important.”
Enrichment is the practice of introducing new learning opportunities for the dolphins through interactions with bought or homemade toys and devices, all meant to stimulate the dolphins’ brain and replicate playful tendencies dolphins would have in the wild.
“What we like to encourage is natural behavior, so if they’re out in the natural environment, what are they going to do? Knock things around, they’re going to explore their environment,” she said. “So, we will create enrichment devices that enrich all different parts of the environment.”
Wendt, a Palm Coast resident, has worked at Marineland for two years. But her love for dolphins began as a child.
“We like to invite as many people as we can in here to experience the animals in a safe, respectful way because that’s how connections are made; I’m proof of that,” she said. “I did a program like this dolphin interaction program we offer here when I was very young and it helped teach me about marine life when I didn’t live by an ocean, and it helped me care about the troubles that oceans are faced now. Without that experience, I wouldn’t have become passionate about what I do, and so I know the power that these types of programs have to make connections.”
There are currently 14 dolphins at Marineland, four of which are juveniles. The oldest one, Betty, is in her early 50s, which Wendt said far exceeds ages in the wild.
“The unfortunate reality is that dolphins don’t live much past 20s and 30s in the natural environment, and even shorter in some areas,” she said.
She noted that Betty’s long life has been directed correlated to the high-quality fish, clean habitat, learning opportunities to stimulate her brain and medical care available to her at Marineland.
Beyond dolphin care, Marineland houses a 20-year-old, named Rocky. He came to Marineland in 2014 after being hit by a boat in the Gulf of Mexico — twice on the shell and once on the head, leaving him blind in his left eye.
“Most sea turtles that get hit like that wouldn’t survive, so he’s our little fighter,” said Taylor Conlon, who’s worked at Marineland since March.
Marineland guests can learn about turtles like Rocky during the Turtle Talk programs on site. Pokey, a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, is another resident of Marineland.
Condon said that Kemp’s ridleys are the smallest and rarest type of sea turtle because of their nesting habits in which they arrive on beaches in Central America by the thousands, causing them to nearly be poached to extinction.
Pokey has a bilateral degenerative joint disease in his shoulder and will be in human care his whole life, she said.
“Now, he lives happily in his retirement home with us,” Conlon said.
At 35 years old, Pokey is fully grown, weighing 85 pounds. He came to Marineland in 2015, and his favorite fish is mackerel, which Conlon stuffs with vitamin capsules like calcium for him to enjoy.
She bonds with Pokey by giving him shell scratches with a brush, as a form of enrichment that mimics sea grasses; turtles have nerve endings on the back on their shell.
“He does what we call the Pokey dance, and he’ll wiggle back and forth when he gets scratched,” she said.
With the end of the 13th-annual kids summer camp this past week, Marineland is setting its sights on collaborations with local schools this fall, said Terran McGinnis, manager of education and community development.
“We’ve totally revamped that program this year so we have a whole new selection of subject matter and topics that teachers can choose from,” she said.
Adult groups and homeschool students are welcome to arrange trips to Marineland too. McGinnis said that the facility is working to develop more programs aimed for preschool age kids to do with their parents.
Rymfire Elementary School already has a partnership with Marineland, as it supports the Roadrunners running club. The club’s 5K participants get passes to Marineland, and the 5K winners get to do a dolphin program.
“We really do want to start developing some close relationships with individual teachers or entire schools that can be part of our educational think tank when we have an idea we’d want to float,” McGinnis said.
Also on the horizon is creating one-day camps that would be scheduled on teacher work days for Flagler County and St. John’s County school districts.