Just like its famed finned performers, the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park has made leaps and bounds in the nearly six decades since it opened. The third largest marine animal facility in the United States, it began as the dream of distinguished researcher J.B. “Brandy” Siebenaler to bring an aquarium – both tourist attraction and scientific center – to Northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast.
“It was his vision to build a place where folks could come and see animals they had never seen before,” says Krista Shouffer, marketing and communications coordinator for the facility. “That may be very commonplace today, but in 1955, there were very few attractions of our kind.”
In the beginning, the main attraction was the upper-level dolphin tank, the same habitat that houses the animals and their popular shows today. Back then, the tank had other residents, among them turtles and (gulp) sharks. But after a few surprised audiences witnessed the clever mammals “outsmart” the sharp-toothed fish, the sharks got an eviction notice.
Soon, a second habitat called “The Living Sea” was created, where glass portholes from the “ocean” floor to the water’s surface give visitors the feeling of being underwater with marine life.
The 50,000-gallon aquarium was the first to feature floor-to-ceiling viewing windows. What is considered so normal today was very innovative at the time. “The Living Sea” exhibit continues to build upon its long history of underwater dive shows, now hosting special events and weddings in the room.
Over the course of time, the Gulfarium has expanded to feature new exhibits and new animals, welcoming 200,000 visitors annually.
“One of the things I like best is there are so many opportunities to get involved, for different age groups as well as different income levels,” Stouffer says. “You can do the basic entry and get so much out of that experience … there’s a lot to see and a lot to learn.”
When you purchase general admission tickets, you have access to all Gulfarium exhibits, shows and training demonstrations. From there, you have the option to enhance your experience by signing up for various animal encounters prior to or during your visit. Just keep in mind when planning that space is limited.
“With our Discover Programs, you can sit on the side of the pool, play with the animals, feed or touch them, take photos, even learn to give behavior signals,” Stouffer raves. “Another option is swimming with the dolphins – a waist-deep, in-water encounter with really unique experiences like feeling their tails and belly buttons.”
(Who knew dolphins had belly buttons?)
Their talented and compassionate trainers, that’s who. Stouffer says the entire staff – from the gift shop to maintenance, trainers to management – is a team dedicated to the well-being of the animal inhabitants. Taking care of the animals is the No. 1 priority of everyone employed by the Gulfarium. Your family’s delight is an added bonus.
One especially delightful add-on for children and parents alike is the Gulfarium Sunset Camp, offered exclusively during spring break and summer, most Tuesdays and Thursdays. All activities are based on the ocean and beach, including an in-depth view of the park’s touch tanks, meeting and feeding the dolphins, a scavenger hunt, and dinner with the seals.
“Sunset Camp is a great opportunity not only for parents to have a little break, but for the kids to have an incredible experience,” Stouffer says. “I wish I had been able to do something like this when I was younger.”
In addition to their commitment to the younger generation, the Gulfarium likewise maintains its mission of conservation and ecology. The staff prides itself on the Sea Turtle C.A.R.E. (Conserve, Act, Rehabilitate, Educate) Program, overseen by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. When a sea turtle is found hurt or sick, it is brought in for a full veterinary evaluation to determine the issue and come up with a treatment plan, the ultimate goal to release the turtle as close as possible to where it was found.
You can feel good about visiting a place with a real dedication to our environment and the animals we share it with.
“If you are looking for an experience the whole family can engage in, the Gulfarium is a great opportunity for that,” Stouffer states. “Everyone can relate to animals and it can be what you make of it. Every time you come, you can do something different.”
The Gulfarium is located at 1010 Miracle Strip Pkwy SE, Fort Walton Beach, FL 32548. For more information, visit the Gulfarium website or call (850) 243-9046.