Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park to Embark on Major Expansion Project - December 13th, 2021

Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, located on Okaloosa Island in Destin-Fort Walton Beach, Florida is embarking on a large, multimillion-dollar expansion project this winter and is excited to share the news with the community.

The project will add a brand-new dolphin habitat to the park.  Construction is scheduled to commence in late December of this year and will take roughly 14 months to complete. Park operations will continue as normal throughout the construction process, as the new habitat will be located on undeveloped land on the north side of the park. Dolphin Oasis will debut just in time for the 2023 Spring and Summer seasons. 

A staple within the local community, the Gulfarium is also proud to have welcomed visitors from the region, country, and all over the world since 1955. From the moment guests walk through the doors, they are immersed in an underwater world where they can view and interact with animals they may not otherwise have the opportunity to encounter.

"Our main dolphin habitat was one of the first of its kind and has stood proud for over 65 years," states Will Merrill III, President of the Gulfarium.  "A pioneering habitat in the 1950’s, built with robust battleship steel, it has allowed us to provide dolphins the top-notch animal welfare that we offer all of our resident animals. Today we are excited to build expanded habitats fully suited to an animal’s long-term needs through all stages of their lives, and so the time has come to create something new." 

After many years in the making and two years of design engineering through a team of individuals from Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, a design firm based in Seattle, WA, MIG|Portico, and PCL Construction, a company based out of Orlando, FL, the work to construct the brand-new habitat has begun.

Dolphin Oasis will be an immersive, natural-themed experience reflecting our Emerald Coast and consisting of three large, interconnected habitats, totaling over one million gallons of gulf salt water designed with animal welfare, the guest experience, and conservation education in mind. 

The new environment will be dynamic, possessing the ability to suit each animal’s welfare needs in a variety of ways, such as offering the animals the option to move throughout the many different areas of the Oasis, providing various social groupings. There will also be a large maternity suite and nursery for mothers and calves as well as multiple locations for animal care specialists to interact and play with the dolphins, utilizing the additional enrichment features included in the design.

Each of the three main habitats will differ in size and depth, one habitat being the deepest, one being shallower, and one having a sloping beach, all mimicking areas dolphins would naturally venture to in the ocean. Dolphin Oasis will also have three husbandry habitats connected to the main areas, as well as a medical lift for the animals. Additionally, the new habitat will be supported by a cutting edge, state-of-the art life support system using Defender Filters in addition to sand filters, lowering energy usage by 50 percent. The Defender Filters will also provide the ability to cut oxidants from the water, allowing the habitat to house live fish for further animal enrichment and welfare.

Dolphin Oasis was designed around the desire to continue to provide education and inspiration, as well as fun and relaxation for Gulfarium guests. The new presentation habitat will provide seating for 480 guests, while still providing the intimate, up-close presentation experience that visitors have come to know and love. The exhibit habitat, which will serve as a nursery for the birth of new calves, will also feature split-level viewing through a 27-foot acrylic window where guests will be able to observe the dolphins from above and below the water’s surface. The encounter habitat will provide new and improved interaction opportunities for guests of all ages to play and learn through interactive, in- and out-of-water, hands-on experiences with the resident dolphins.

When visiting the Gulfarium, a facility accredited by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks & Aquariums and the International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association, guests will journey past the C.A.R.E. Center for sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation, through Expedition Trail, a world of crocodilians, and arrive at Dolphin Oasis. Once they step foot on the pathway, they will be greeted by 2 acres of sandy dunes, palms, and the pristine emerald waters of the Florida coastlines where the dolphins reside. The new habitat will also provide a beautiful and unique event experience for weddings, celebrations, or any special occasion worth celebrating. 

"We may have opened our doors more than 65 years ago, but our story is just beginning," exclaims Patrick Berry, Gulfarium's Senior Vice President. "We look forward to the enhanced welfare opportunities the new habitat will offer our animals. We are grateful to be able to move forward with this expansion and look forward to welcoming our guests into Dolphin Oasis in 2023." 






Gulfarium in Fort Walton Beach breaks ground on Dolphin Oasis - January 18th, 2022

The dolphins at Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park will level up in the spring of 2023 with their new pad, aka the Dolphin Oasis.

More than 50 people stood in the sand Tuesday morning on the 2.2-acre property next to U.S. Highway 98 on Okaloosa Island that will become the multimillion-dollar dolphin habitat after its 12- to 14-month construction. The habitat will feature more than 1 million gallons of water fed from the Gulf of Mexico — three times the amount of their existing habitat — and make room for 11 to 15 dolphins to live comfortably.

Patrick Berry, the Gulfarium's Senior Vice President and COO, said he believes the name of the new habitat is fitting. “It embodies a lush green immersive environment with sand and picturesque waters,” Berry said. “An oasis is a refuge, right? We feel it will be a refuge for our guests when they come to this area — whether they're coming locally or nationally or internationally — and obviously for the animals that are going to inhabit that habitat as well.”

The Gulfarium will continue its normal operations through construction and aims for an opening in the spring of 2023.

Many community members attended and hosted the groundbreaking. Steven Vaggalis, the pastor of Destiny Worship Center’s Fort Walton Beach campus, started the event with a prayer; Don Gaetz, a former member of the Florida State Senate, led the Pledge of Allegiance; Willis Merrill, the President of the Gulfarium, shared some history of the park; and Collier Merrill, a Gulfarium board member, thanked people for coming.

Berry then shared details of the new addition.

Envisioning the Dolphin Oasis

He said the Gulfarium has been focused on bringing the dolphin habitat to fruition for 10 years, and began the design process two-and-a-half years ago. The Gulfarium has been growing, with 2021 marking its largest attended year, he added. “Gulfarium was originally built in 1955, and it was a pioneering state-of-the-art facility when it was first built,” Berry said. “Of course, as time has gone on, things have advanced and so have we. This is part of one of our advances, this brand new habitat that we're gonna be building.”

The habitat was designed by MIG in Seattle, Washington, with three things in mind: animal welfare, the guest experience and conservation education, Berry said. Guests will walk on what is called the Expedition Trail, passing the crocodiles and the Care Center for sea turtle rehabilitation, to arrive at the Dolphin Oasis. It will feature three connected areas: the Presentation, Exhibit and Encounter habitats, which the dolphins can swim between.

Like in the current habitat, the new one allow guests to see animals up close, interact with the them and learn about conservation. The Presentation Habitat has seating for 480 people and standing room for more behind it. “There will be an acrylic window for viewing, much like we've got our portable windows in the current habitat,” Berry said. “I can't tell you how many times I walked through our halls in the main habitat that we currently have, and I'll hear families and kids and adults looking through those windows and just howling and seeing the dolphins. We wanted to be able to give that to our guests in new habitat.”

Dolphin Oasis will also feature room for events and an Encounter Building with washrooms. The Gulfarium wanted to be “cutting edge,” particularly in its animal welfare, Berry said. That is shown in life support, which is how water is brought into the habitat from the Gulf. The Gulfarium will not only use traditional sand filters to clean the water, but also defender filters.

“(This) is a brand new cutting edge technology that helps to clean up the water for the animals and enable us to use less oxidants in the water for the animals, and it will also cut our energy consumption by 50%,” Berry said.

The new filters will provide another new opportunity. “Our current habitat, we utilize a small amount of chlorine to help keep it clean — very trace amounts — but that would preclude us from having fish in the main habitat,” Berry said. “Currently, with this new habitat, we're looking forward to the possibility of having live fish, (and) that will continue with the environmental enrichment and the animal welfare that dolphins can check out.”

Animal welfare benefits

Another aspect is that animal welfare professionals will have more areas to interact and build relationships with the animals, Berry said. The habitat will also include areas at the bottom to connect what are called “enrichment devices,” he said.

“You might have been here before and seen dolphins playing with balls, basketballs and footballs, but we'll be able to tie things down or connect things to the bottom of the habitat, enabling the dolphins to have more things to play with and choice as well,” Berry said. The Exhibit Habitat will enable births and slipstreaming, which allows the mother dolphin and baby calf to move into the position to nurse.

Mary Kate Northup, the Operations Manager, said the Gulfarium now has seven dolphins — three females and four males — but that they expect the number to grow in the new habitat. While the existing habitat is an awesome structure; it has definitely outlived itself, she said. “Now that we're finally here at the groundbreaking and actually turning dirt, it is pretty amazing, pretty surreal,” Northup said. “We’re just really excited for the animals. That's our top priority with all of this, and then with our guest experience as well. We're just really looking forward to the future.”

Dolphin Oasis Progress - February 4th, 2022

It may not look like a lot has changed since our groundbreaking, but important advancements have taken place in the construction of Dolphin Oasis. New water and sanitation lines have been placed, grade work for the site has been completed, and of course the irrigation system is already in place controlling dust! Foundations for the life support building are under way as well.


Gulfarium's multi-million dollar Dolphin Oasis is taking shape - July 7, 2022

Northwest Florida Daily News - An oasis is taking shape in the white sands behind the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park. 

Specifically, it's the Dolphin Oasis, a multi-million dollar project to build a new habitat for the Gulfarium’s seven Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.

“It’s one of the largest expansions that we’ve ever had here at the Gulfarium,” said Patrick Berry, the park's senior vice-president and chief operating officer.

Construction began in January and, as of this week, workers with Orlando-based PCL Construction have poured the foundations for the habitat and are forming up and pouring the 12-inch thick, steel-reinforced walls.

Dolphin Oasis Project Timeline

Berry said the project is about halfway done, and he anticipates opening in the spring of 2023. When completed, Dolphin Oasis will have three large distinct habitats that are connected to one another so that dolphins can easily move among them.

The first habitat will be for the park’s dolphin presentation programs. It will have seating for 480 people and room for others to stand and watch. A short walk downhill leads visitors to the exhibit habitat, where guests can watch the dolphins from below the waterline.

“We’ll have a 27-foot-long acrylic viewing window here where guests can look into,” Berry said. “We’re excited about the possibility of having births in this habitat as well.”

He said the new habitat can accommodate anywhere from 11 to 15 dolphins and offer plenty of room for expansion.

“I’m sure over time we’ll continue to grow the number of dolphins that we have here, either through births or working with other facilities as well in the breeding process,” Berry said.

The third habitat area will be used for park’s dolphin encounters. One side of the habitat is edge-less to allow guests to easily walk into the water for their up-close visit with a dolphin. There are also additional behind the scenes areas where the staff can tend to the dolphins' health needs.

“We also have a life support system that will be state of the art, and we’re very excited about that,” said Berry.     

In their new home, the Gulfarium’s dolphins will swim in about 1 million gallons of water pumped from the Gulf of Mexico. Berry said the water will be cleaned using the Defender filtration system, which will cut energy costs by up to 50%. The new system will reduce the amount of oxidants used in the water, which will allow fish to use the tank as well.        

“Were looking forward to the possibility of having live fish in with the dolphins as well,” Berry said. “It will be great environment enrichment not only for the guests to see but for the dolphins to experience as well.”                         

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