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.
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.
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!