Meet the Trainer: Russell McLendon

Russell McLendon works with several sea lions at the Gulfarium.
Russell McLendon works with several sea lions at the Gulfarium.

For Russell McLendon’s family,  working at the Gulfarium has been a family affair for over 35 years. As a celebrated young animal trainer he met his wife working at the park, and his kids would grow up to work there, with one daughter following in her father’s footsteps with a promising career as a marine mammal trainer. But it all started when 15-year old Russell McLendon strapped on an aluminum tank and a mask for the first time and entered the Living Sea with, as all divers did, a Splash!

Flip through the pages of Images of America: Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park and, regrettably, you won’t find a photo of Russell McLendon. You will however find his name in the acknowledgments, and his stories inform several of the chapter introductions and many of the photo captions. But time has a way of keeping her secrets, and the only photo we unearthed of Russel working with the animals was too small to be published in the book–and that’s why I’ve published it here!

McLendon was one of our first interviews. His family had a stack of old photos that we went through one night at his daughter’s kitchen table as he smiled and chuckled through story after story of his years at Gulfarium. He introduced us to Perry and Tanya the fearsome park guard dogs, Scooter and Clyde the harbor seals, and Big Mac the 7-foot manta ray.

But I think that my favorite story Russel told that night was of capturing flying fish with the always resourceful and determined Brandy Siebenaler.

Siebenaler fitted his 46′ Chris Craft Corinthian with a large, square PVC pipe frame that hung off the side of the boat. From the frame he draped a saggy white sheet and backlit it with a powerful spotlight. The after-dark result was a vision that could only be perceived by swimming fish as a bright, square moon hovering just inches above the water. The temptation of course was irresistible and flying fish quite literally flocked to it, leaping at it as the boat chugged around the Gulf of Mexico all night. The fish would hit the sheet and then slide down into a saggy pocket where they could be collected with ease.

The plan was to stock the Living Sea with live flying fish, but McLendon said the fish turned out to be too fragile for that purpose, so they primarily became fresh, local food for the dolphins.

Stories about innovative methods to accomplish the most challenging tasks–and their often unpredictable results–were one of my favorite things about researching this book. The stories chronicle an industry in its infancy, growing through adolescence and into adulthood. It took adventurous souls with the confidence and cunning to solve the occasional Rubik’s-level problem.

Marjorie Siebenaler – Fearless Female

Of the captivating characters mentioned in the book, there were none more fascinating to me than the matriarch herself, Marjorie Siebenaler. My only regret is not being able to meet or interview her as she has long since passed away, forever resting in a cemetery less than 2 miles from my home.

If only she knew now that a field once dominated by men, a field that must have felt lonely to her at times as the first and only female porpoise trainer at the Gulfarium (and possibly in the world), would eventually yield hundreds of capable, smart, strong, innovating women such as herself. I imagine traveling back in time to tell her myself and thank her for showing bravery, initiative, and for paving the way. Her response? A likely shrug of the shoulders, sweet smile, and a prompt return back to a training session with Herman the dolphin, dive with a massive loggerhead, or whatever other task she had planned for the day.

I don’t think Marjorie saw herself as a brave pioneer the way I do. In fact, up until the very first day she donned a wetsuit, Marjorie was petrified of the water, the sea, and all its inhabitants. She never told her entrepreneur/scientist husband, Gulfarium founder Brandy Siebenaler, until one day they stood poolside at the newly built porpoise habitat. As Brandy jokingly threatened to pick her up and toss her in, Marjorie screamed, “I hate water! I loathe fish!”

It was not until a lack of staffing forced a stubborn Marjorie to perform a dive show rather than cancel the performance. After that, she became Gulfarium’s star performer and demonstrated an innate ability to train the dolphins. Many (male) coworkers later commented that no one had the same relationship with the animals that Marjorie did. Some claimed it was her high pitched voice, others her dedication to job. Personally, I think it was her fearless nature and willingness to try anything.

Like I said, a brave pioneer.

– Krista Stouffer

Meet George Gray

George Gray first clocked in at the Gulfarium in 1972–he was a 17-year old kid looking for a job.  Just two years later, his job would be Show Director of the park’s popular dolphin show.

George was born to do shows at the Gulfarium. Trainers who worked with him all marveled at his incredible showmanship. George credits his success in the shows to the dolphins: Herman, Princess, Misty and Delilah.

And that’s just the kind of guy you meet when you meet George Gray. He’s worked with animals his entire life, and he says he’s loved every job he’s ever had. He considers that fact of his life a divine gift.

There’s no doubt that George has a gift for working with animals, and he’s put that gift to great use. Over his many years at the Gulfarium he was an active member of an animal rehab team that helped dolphins, sea lions, false killer whales and anything else that stranded along the northern Gulf coast during his 20+ years wearing the Gulfarium shirt.

George worked with the U.S. Coast Guard on an out-of-the-box plan to free a submarine-sized baleen whale stranded in Pensacola Bay, a rescue documented in the book.

Inspired by an influx of dolphin strandings in the 1990s, George retired from the Gulfarium to open the Emerald Coast’s first dedicated facility for marine mammal and sea turtle rehabilitation–Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge.

“I wanted to make sure that stranded animals would always have a place to go,” George said.

George Gray’s stories run throughout the book. We couldn’t have put this project together in the way that we did without his input.

Voices of the Book: The people. Their stories.

George Gray holds April, an orphaned calf. Gray was a critical member of the team that successfully nursed her to health.
George Gray holds April, an orphaned calf. Gray was a critical member of the team that successfully nursed her to health.

I heard George Gray climbing the cement stairs of the Gulfarium’s Administration Office before I saw his face.

His voice echoed from around the blind corner, “Hello? I remember this place.”

So began our first interview with a former Gulfarium employee. A man among the many who built the park, its reputation and its legacy.

That first interview with George Gray lasted well into the evening and concluded with the inspirational and heart-warming confession that George takes immense pride in the work he put into caring for and performing with the Gulfarium animals across three decades. And he had one hell of a lot of fun!

We sat down with many wonderful people while compiling the stories and photos for the book. Each interviewee gushed with immense joy while remembering the times when their lives revolved so intensely around the animals.  This blog is the perfect place to introduce our readers to the voices that told us the many stories found within the book.

Stay tuned to hear the stories of George Gray, Ron Bradford, Steve Shippee and others!

Of course, if you have stories and we didn’t get to you in time to include yours in the book, this blog is the perfect place to share your stories as well!

Our Book’s Birthday!

Release Day is finally here!

The process that began nearly a year ago has come full circle as Images of America: Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park hits shelves today, January 12, 2015.

On this site you can follow the progress of our book signing tour, get a little insight into the making of the book, and of course order your discounted copy from the authors themselves!

We thank our family and friends for the support along the way that helped make this book possible. Your hearts are in this work as are our blood, sweat and blistered typing fingers!

Check back for book signing dates as we add them to the calendar on this page.

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