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Diving Into The Past With New Gulfarium History Book

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Reprinted with permission from Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park by Russel Chiodo, Krista Stouffer. Available from the publisher online at www.arcadiapublishing.com or by calling 888-313-2665.

The Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park has been a primary tourism destination on the Emerald Coast for 60 years and now the subject of a new pictorial history book. WUWF’s Danielle Freeman sat down with the authors to discuss what has made the park a success over the years.

The new book from Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series highlights the marine park on Okaloosa Island with six chapters and over 200 images, beginning with its conception in 1953, during a time when the area was primarily fueled by agriculture and industry, "The idea that a tourist attraction would actually bring revenue to the county was really considered just this strange out there idea. And of course now it’s what we do."

Russel Chiodo is a freelance writer and aquarium diver at the park. He’s also the author of the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park book, along with Krista Stouffer, who is the Marketing Director for the facility.

Stouffer says choosing a great spot for the park was one of the first big decisions needed to be made. It was beautiful, and ideally located between the larger cities of Pensacola and Panama City, " They picked this perfect site right here on Okaloosa Island, which had nothing on it at the time. It’s just amazing to see this Island just desolate nothing on it, no paving, no Highway 98, just sand dunes. But, it hadn’t quite yet developed as a tourist attraction. They had this idea that this facility would help it become one and it very much did."

The park was founded in the early 1950s by J.B. “Brandy” Siebenaler, a onetime dentist turned marine biologist and real estate developer Lloyd Bell. Siebenaler’s goal was to bridge the gap between life on land and life under water by brining marine life ashore.

Although, Siebenaler and his wife Marjorie had a love of marine life, correlating that into making a thriving park was mostly done through trial and error. Stouffer says that one of her favorite stories in the book is how Marjorie got in on the action, even though it was completely by accident, "There was no one available to dive into the habit with the animals to do the show, so she stepped up, despite a fear of diving and being underwater, did the show and from that day forward became an integral part of taking care of the animals."

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Credit Reprinted with permission from Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park by Russel Chiodo, Krista Stouffer. Available from the publisher online at www.arcadiapublishing.com or by calling 888-313-2665.
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Reprinted with permission from Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park by Russel Chiodo, Krista Stouffer. Available from the publisher online at www.arcadiapublishing.com or by calling 888-313-2665.

According to Stouffer, although “Brandy” Siebenaler had a degree in marine biology, there was still a great deal [that was] unknown about the behavior of different species, causing an episode at the park, which ultimately was the catalyst for the Living Sea exhibit, "This habitat, which now just houses dolphins, but at the time housed dolphins, sharks, turtles, fish, all kinds of different species of animals all together. That only lasted about one month. There was an incident in front of the public where several of the dolphins turned on several of the sharks and ended up killing quite a few of the sharks. But, nothing was known at that time."

The “Living Sea” exhibit is the second largest attraction at the park. Chiodo says in the early years it offered tourists a chance to get up close and personal with the sea life at a time when scuba diving was not a popular sport, "That was the first big aquarium of its kind to feature floor to ceiling windows so people could see everything and it was almost like you were under water with the fish."

The Gulfarium is the first park to feature windows in the main dolphin habitat that allow visitors to view the show from above as well as below the surface of the water. And, it’s one of the oldest marine parks still standing in the United States today, despite a number of hurricanes to the area.  

Russel Chiodo says the facility started branching out and began rescuing and rehabilitating a mixture of marine life that washed ashore since there were no state agencies to handle it at the time, "Beached whales, large whales, all sorts of dolphins, and of course sea turtles, manta rays, you name it and what we saw was from the people we were interviewing and the photos that we found is that when somebody would find an animal in distress, a lot of times their first thought was to call the Gulfarium, they’ll know what to do.  And that’s how this park in the early days got involved."

And, Chiodo says, this led to several scientific discoveries along the way, "The vet’s that worked here over the years even developed a milk formula, it was the first milk formula that was successfully used to raise an orphaned calf. Which was something that had never been done, replace the milk that a calf would naturally get from its mother."

Another discovery and a practice still used today was a way to safely and securely transport all types of dolphins.

For more than half a century the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park has offered an entertaining and educational experience with marine animals and other wildlife. The book is available at the Gulfarium, area book stores, and online at arcadia publishing dot com. A number of book signings are scheduled, including one this Friday, February 6th from 7-9am at the Ft. Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce.