Marineland in Florida

Trainer Caitlin Bartlett interacts with the dolphins at Marineland, in Flagler County between Daytona Beach and St. Augustine, Florida, on June 1, 2012. (Kent D. Johnson, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, MCT / June 1, 2012)

MARINELAND, Fla. - Her eyes are cloudy now, a blueish-gray haze blocking out some of the sunlight that glints off the water in her habitat.

She doesn't always move as nimbly as the dozen other dolphins sharing her space, either.

But that's OK, because Nellie has something they don't.

She has seniority - 59 years of it, more than double the normal age of an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. And those eyes, before a hint of cataracts snuck in and stole the sharpness of her vision, have witnessed many of the triumphs, declines and rebirths of Marineland, Florida's first theme park.

"She's somewhat the matriarch," said Kurt Allen, vice president and general manager of Marineland, as he watches Nellie gracefully glide under an archway in the pool where she suns herself on this severely clear May afternoon. "She is literally rewriting history every day." The same can be said for Marineland.

Now owned by the Georgia Aquarium, the world's first marine animal park opened 75 years ago, offering visitors previously unheard-of access to dolphins, whales and other creatures that roam the seas.

For decades, the pioneering aquatic retreat thrived as Florida's only theme park, attracting as many as 400,000 visitors a year.

But the Marineland of today is a very different scene. Operated by the aquarium as a separate nonprofit organization, it is located in a trio of nondescript off-white buildings battered by surf spray near the same spot where the original structures once stood, nestled between Fla. A1A and a postcard-ready section of the Atlantic Ocean.

Georgia Aquarium has poured about $3 million into the facility so far last year, mostly for operational improvements such as pool heaters and new signage. But the park struggles to meet even a fraction of its former attendance figures. An estimated 50,000 people visited Marineland in 2011, and 60,000-70,000 are expected this year.

Carey Rountree, senior vice president for sales and marketing at Georgia Aquarium, attributes low attendance figures to public perception. He says many Marineland fans of years past think that when the venue closed for repairs in 2004, it never re-opened.

"That's been our biggest challenge, to tell people we are open," says Rountree. The eventual goal is to hit a six-figure attendance number again.

Despite the financial and attendance woes that have hindered Marineland, the Georgia Aquarium has a twofold stake in the facility. The coastal Florida location provides access for marine research and specimen collection - three of the four manta rays at the aquarium were gathered off the Marineland coast. And collaboration between the facilities allows the aquarium to answer critics who say the Atlanta aquatic emporium is too focused on entertainment.

According to Rountree, acquiring Marineland fit the philosophy on which the Georgia Aquarium was founded. "Bernie Marcus (aquarium founder and CEO) wanted it to be a combination of entertainment, conservation, research and education. In order to do that, you had to pay the bills, and entertainment was a way to do that. Once we were able to pay the bills, we've been able to increase the education and conservation efforts." Last month at Marineland, the "Behind the Seas" exhibit opened, featuring additional dolphin viewing areas and a collection of artifacts from the oceanarium's past.

But while Marineland's focus is on education, elements of the attraction remain touristy draws. Visitors willing to pay extra for intimate dolphin experiences can stand in shallow water for 20 minutes with the slate-colored mammals or be a trainer for a day.

After all, bills need to be paid there too, owners say.

Bankrolled by a group of investors that included Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and Count Ilia Tolstoy (yes, grandson of Leo), the facility opened June 23, 1938, as Marine Studios because it was intended to double as a location for filming underwater movie scenes.

On opening day, more than 30,000 people jammed the stretch of coastline 20 miles south of St. Augustine, their cars gridlocked on Fla. A1A as they eagerly awaited the opportunity to glimpse the novelty that Marine Studios promised.

The eye-popping centerpiece of the park was a 75-foot circular concrete oceanarium where bottlenose dolphins and whales frolicked in remarkable proximity to the public. For $1.10, visitors could peer at schools of neon-hued fish and menacing sharks through 200 portholes that lined the venue's walls.

From above, dolphins could be seen flaunting their tricks on the surface of the pool, and other aquatic creatures such as loggerhead turtles, sea lions and African penguins were elsewhere on view. Theme-happy watering holes such as the Moby Dick lounge and the Rocking Ship bar appealed to customers' wallets and non-marine pursuits, and the flamingos near the front entrance made for colorful additions to visitors' photo albums.