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Dolphins and Sealions a part of Napier's history

grand stand opening BW2


When Laura Vodanovich assumed the role as MTG Director, she gave a series of talks to interested groups throughout Te Matau-a-Māui / Hawke’s Bay and posed the question: “what exhibitions would people be keen to see at MTG?” Marineland was always a forerunner amongst answers given and that request has come to fruition with Silver Shadows: the story of Marineland opening Saturday 17 September.


Silver Shadows follows Marineland from when it opened in January 1965 until closure, April 2009. The site chosen for the oceanarium was vacant Napier City Council land, next to the boating lake on Marine Parade. A large round concrete water tank (3.65 metres deep and 15.24 metres across) was built, surrounded by a fence, with temporary planked seating obtained from McLean Park, situated on one side. When Daphne, the pools first dolphin was captured and placed in the tank, people began visiting and on 29 January 1965, the new facility opened to paying visitors. Such was the public interest that within a year a larger dolphin pool and kidney-shaped sea lion pool were added to the complex.


Marineland became a tourist mecca, bringing in a constant flow of visitors. Rugby teams, athletes, beauty contestants, politicians and entertainers would be hosted at Marineland - even Garfield and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. Within five years (August 1970) one million people had visited, and seven years later the number reached two million.


A visit to Marineland was always something special when holidaying in Te Matau-a-Māui and would delight everyone equally. It was a feast for the senses - the taste of sea salt on the tongue, smell of fish in the air, clicking and whistling of dolphins, barking of sea lions and seals, cries of seagulls overhead, and a visual riot of activity.  


There were opportunities galore, from swimming with dolphins, posing with sea lions, holding a penguin, experiencing behind-the-scene tours or just gazing transfixed at the activities of all the inhabitants. The highlight was definitely the marine mammals’ performance. When it was announced that the show was about to begin, people hurriedly moved to the grandstand. There was palpable excitement in the air, constant chatter and laughter and then a hushed silence as the show began. Performances were interspersed with bursts of laughter, collective gasps and clapping from the audience along with the constant clicking of cameras.


No other tourist venue in Te Matau-a-Māui had excited so much national interest. It was a place like no other, the only marine wildlife centre in Aotearoa / New Zealand. Initially it was purely an entertainment zoo, showcasing intelligent mammals trained to perform complex routines and display comedic human traits.


Marineland was not without its detractors and, from its very inception, was besieged by opposition. As early as August 1966, the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) petitioned the Government, disputing the size of the pools under construction and seeking release of Marineland’s dolphins. Both petitions failed.


Dolphin treatment was again rigorously questioned when Jasper, tail-grabbed in August 1983, died within a month from injuries sustained during his capture. Jasper’s death initiated MAF (Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries) to revoke Marineland’s permit to capture six dolphins, limiting them instead to one dolphin per permit. The last permit to capture dolphins was issued to Marineland in July 1986.


As perceptions changed around keeping marine mammals in captivity, the role of Marineland shifted toward acting as a sanctuary for injured animals, focusing on education and conservation. Other than the dolphins, sea lions and otters, the majority of animals at Marineland were waifs and strays brought in injured or malnourished by government agencies or members of the public. Amongst these were kekeno / New Zealand fur seals, one of whom had got tangled in blue plastic strapping progressively eating into the flesh of the animal’s neck. Marineland also became a sanctuary for injured birdlife, including penguins, gannets and at one stage even a ruru / morepork.


A key element of Silver Shadows are selected accounts of the many animals who gave so much pleasure to the nation over the years. Much loved dolphins such as Bonnie, Kelly, Shona, Brenda and Kara among many other audience favourites; Flash, the suave and somewhat cheeky California sea lion; Laga a popoiangore / leopard seal, described as “half a ton of ocean savagery” but who, in reality, was a real softy; Madam Cholot and Orinoco, two troublesome Asian long-clawed otere / otters; penguins of different species including kororā / little blue penguin, one of whom (Bluey) proved to be a skilful skateboarder; and kekeno including Makea, one of several fur seal pups born at Marineland.


Over time, changing public and Government sentiment toward keeping marine mammals in captivity, along with tired facilities and internal conflict, eventually led to the demise of Marineland. When Shona and Kelly, the marine zoo’s last dolphins died, a battle-worn and weary Marineland limped towards inevitable closure and on 25 April 2009, the doors shut for the final time.


MTG warmly invites you to come along with family and friends and enjoy a glimpse into this part of Hawke’s Bay history.


Published in the Hawke's Bay Today newspaper on 17 September 2022 and written by Gail Pope, Social History Curator at MTG Hawke's Bay.


23 September 2022

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