Long before there were theme parks in Orlando, the Miami Seaquarium thrilled tens of thousands of South Florida visitors each year. From baby boomers to preschoolers, generations of children have been awed by this marine-life park’s whale and dolphin experiences. Visitors to this aquarium, located on the island of Virginia Key in Key Biscayne, were among the first to snap selfies atop the alligator statue in the entrance.
But what’s behind the enduring popularity of the Miami Seaquarium? The park’s president and general manager Andrew Hertz has a theory: “[There are] three reasons that I’ve seen people want to come here: to see something they’ve never seen before, to see something impressive, to see something dangerous,” he explained.
A Bit of History
At its opening in 1955, the Miami Seaquarium was the second oceanarium in the United States.
Hertz credits Fred D. Coppock and Captain W.B. Gray, the original founders of the Seaquarium, for seizing the opportunity and interest Americans showed for aquariums, water parks and marine life, and particularly Marineland. Founded in 1938, Marineland in St. Augustine claimed to be the first oceanarium in the world; it was the only one until the Seaquarium opened 17 years later, at almost twice the size.
In five short years, the park’s success caught the eye of Wometco Enterprises, a Coral Gables-based theater and entertainment company, where Arthur Hertz was working as a junior accountant. Arthur purchased the park after Wometco founder Mitchell Wolfson retired in the early 1980s and served as its chairman until his death in 2017.
Shortly after being acquired by Wometco, the Seaquarium garnered national and international fame as the location for the beloved television show Flipper from 1963 to 1967. The nostalgia of the early days can be found today at the dolphin show, where visitors can enjoy a display of historic images and memorabilia of the iconic series.
A cornerstone of the Miami Seaquarium, besides its animal care and conservation work, is its educational exhibits. A dozen of them—classic and new—delight children of all ages. A few like Discovery Bay where sea turtles and Florida birds live in a natural mangrove habitat are temporarily closed due to damage from Hurricane Irma, however the new Conservation Outpost and Rescue a Reef showcase the park's wildlife rescue and coral reef restoration programs. The latter, an exhibit in partnership with the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, shows how coral trees are used in oceanic restoration efforts.
In 2016, the wildly popular Penguin Isle exhibit debuted. It features an 8,000 square-foot habitat re-created as a replica of the rocky southern African beaches and burrow shelters and is home to 10 endangered African penguins.
What makes visitors come time and again to this attraction, may well be its variety of sealife encounters and experiences starring dolphins, penguins and seals.
At the Dolphin Encounter or Odyssey, guests can learn about these friendly mammals in an educational classroom presentation before they don wetsuits and swim with them, in either a deep water odyssey or a shallow water experience.
Walk with the fish at the Sea Trek Reef Encounter, an underwater walking journey through a 300,000-gallon tropical reef. Adventurers here, can stroll the underwater wearing a state-of-the-art dive helmet in a 20-minute dive to see tropical fish, stingrays and other marine life.
Adults and children alike can interact with one of the world's most beloved birds at the all-new Penguin Encounter. Known for swimming fast and traveling long distances, these tuxedo-clad mammals are a treat, since they are found in Africa's southwestern coastal waters and islands.
There's no greater thrill than getting those fun photos with the friendly, intelligent and loving harbor seals. And yes, you can take a dip with them and steal a seal kiss or hug too during the 15-20 minute Swim with the Seals experience.
What else is on the horizon at this long-standing attraction?
"We are in an exploratory phase to create a reef-type experience that would allow people to snorkel. The way that Gen Z sees the world, which is very digital and virtual, we are kind of a respite from their world. When they come here, they put the phone down and see the real world,” said Hertz.
They will also add touch pools and a flamingo run soon. “This is all borne out of conversations with my father 20 years ago–conversations about what people want, what will keep them entertained while they learn. That’s his legacy,” Hertz added.