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Marineland spirit endures

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Bubbles, a pilot whale, receives a floral hat made with a life preserver and flowers. The captain on the back of the 1960 postcard reads, “Bubbles proves that female pilot whales can be just as vain as any young girl.” courtesy of the Palos Verdes Library District Local History Center Photo Collection.

by Kelly Kim

Addison “Curly” Loomis met God three times in his life. The last time was in 1989 on his deathbed in Corbett, Oregon. An inoperable brain tumor left him paralyzed on his right side, and his youngest son Scott had been taking care of him, lifting him when he needed to get around. At 67, he was young but had lived a full life. Curly had dreams of being a prominent artist, of having the paintings he had done when he worked at Marineland exhibited in New York. He never quite made it beyond local media stories, the last of which ran in 1974. Curly and Scott had traveled to Toronto, where after a round of special medical treatment the doctors said there was nothing more they could do. 

“How do I do it, son?” he said to his youngest born, slurring his words a bit. “How do I ask God to…you know?”

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Curly, as he was called for his kinky hair, knew he was going to die.But before he finally went, he wanted to meet God again. For years, Scott had urged his dad to “get with God,” but Curly had no ears for his son’s gentle proselytizing. He knew he wasn’t going to find God in a building, his painting, or his time as a logger among old growth trees. Nature had replaced the draconian dogma of the Apostolic Christian church he had grown up in.

Scott sat down next to his father and prayed with him.

“In that moment, he changed, the light and countenance in his face completely changed,” Scott, now 60, recounted on a recent sunny afternoon in Palos Verdes. “From that time to about a month or two later when he passed away, he would do nothing but smile and just look at you. He was filled with the spirit of God, the light was just shining out of him. He almost quit talking completely. He went to the Lord in peace — total peace. It was miraculous.”

Addison “Curly” Loomis completed a dozen Marineland paintings, including this shark painting, underwater, in Marineland’s three-story, 540,00 gallon oceanarium. Photo by Tony LaBruno

The People of Marineland

Curly married Mae when he was 20 and she was 18. Together, they walked away from the church that had felt too oppressive for young Addison’s budding artistic expression. After Curly served as an Air Force pilot in WWII, the couple and their four children moved to Redondo Beach, where in 1965, Curly began working first as a janitor and later as a diver at Marineland of the Pacific. It was the largest oceanarium in the world, built on 65 acres on Long Point on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Curly had painted his whole life and believed that his artwork could one day make a living for himself and his family. In his teen years, he had painted murals on grocery store walls in Grants Pass, Oregon. He finished his first canvas paintings after moving to Redondo Beach. 

One day at Marineland, Curly had the idea to paint inside his office — which happened to be a three-story 540,000 gallon, oval tank, where he and a team of five other divers would swim through on an hourly basis to feed the fish, sharks, and sea turtles. That day in 1966, he swapped his usual stainless steel bucket of chum for a wooden easel and dove 22 feet down to the bottom of the tank. Instead of feeding the fish, he painted them. Between 1966 and 1969, Curly completed 12 paintings of the creatures in that tank. To avoid hypothermia, Curly could only stay underwater for an hour at a time while painting. His subjects were always moving, usually in a circle, so he had to wait for them to come around until he could paint the next stroke. He used a waterproofed masonite board instead of a regular canvas and mixed his oil paints directly on the board instead of on a palette. He needed 40 hours to complete a painting. He painted entirely underwater and only when his subject circled in front  for him.

“The [creatures] all have distinct and separate personalities,” Curly wrote in a 1967 essay while working on his eighth painting. “[I’ve] spent hundreds of hours among them in their silent world.” 

Curly found peace in the silence, he was focused and inspired in this environment, and this muted reality was later mirrored in Curly’s choice to refrain from speaking during his last living days. For Curly, this quietude was divine, these were the places where he met God — in nature, in the tank, and then on his deathbed.

All 12 of Loomis’ underwater paintings were exhibited for the first time in 45 years during a reunion of former Marineland employees at Terranea Resort on Saturday, August 3. On a sunny strip of grass just outside the entrance of Nelson’s, the resort’s oceanfront casual dining spot, Scott Loomis stood proudly next to his father’s art. He had driven them down from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho with his wife Cheryl. The paintings include a hammerhead shark, a sea turtle pair, and bat rays, but the one that most stood out was a grouper named Gerome. Gerome stares directly at the viewer. 

“I’d ask my dad every day if I could go to Gerome’s, my best friend’s house,” Scott Loomis recalled. “And so he named the fish after my friend.”

Gerome would sit with Curly while he painted, sometimes resting his chin on his lap.

Friendships like that of Curly and Gerome’s weren’t uncommon at Marineland. Fred Shafer, who grew up in San Pedro and moved to Palos Verdes in his teens, was a rebellious 16-year-old when he reluctantly agreed to attend a Marineland field trip his father, a teacher on the hill, had planned for his students. Shafer found himself at the dolphin pool where that day he began a friendship that would last the next 20 years.

“I threw the ball, and the dolphin brings me back the ball,” Shafer recounted at the reunion. “I go, ‘Wow, she brought me the ball!’ She would let me touch her, but she would not let anybody else. And it was that one day, that one experience, I’m going ‘This is awesome, I’m gonna be a dolphin trainer.’ I discovered that right on the spot, and I made it my focus to say, ‘I’m going to work here.” 

Shafer soon got a job at Marineland and continued to work helping animals in oceanariums for decades. 

“I started a whole career, and when I was 28 years old, I had already achieved my dreams.” 

When Marineland closed in 1987, Shafer moved to SeaWorld, where, after the Exxon Valdez crash of 1989, he washed otters and took care of the babies they rescued.. Spray, the dolphin who inspired him to start his career, also moved to SeaWorld. Shafer continued to care for her for 20 years, until she died. 

“Marineland made my career. That seed here turned into what I’ve been doing since I was 16 years old. I’ve been [working for] 41 years based on the seed I got at Marineland.”

At its peak, Marineland employed 410 people who hailed from all across the South Bay — Torrance, San Pedro, Redondo Beach. Another  300 seasonal employees were hired off the Palos Verdes hill every summer. 

“We thought of each other as one big family,” Tony, another Marineland employee, recalled. “We watched the mammals’ babies born, we grew up as they grew up. We came in at 1 o’clock in the morning to jump into 55 degree water.”

Tony was offered a “nice job” at SeaWorld but left after a few months. 

“At Marineland, we teamed together to accomplish anything we needed to,” Tony said. “SeaWorld was all about bottom line dollars. It was a different atmosphere. This was so much like family, and that was so much like corporate.”

“It was like a summer camp,” recalls Laura Emdee, now a Redondo Beach City Councilmember. As a teen, she put together the corporate picnics at Marineland. 

In its heyday, Marineland had about 60 animals. Killer whales Orky and Corky were the main attractions. The oceanarium was also home to eight walruses, 30 dolphins, 50 sea lions, dozens of African and Blackfoot penguins, flamingoes, pelicans, sea turtles, and a variety of sharks and fish. Marineland allowed humans to build relationships with these rare animals and to become invested in their conservation.

“It just stayed with us, every part of it, whether it was the work ethic, whether it was the camaraderie.” Emdee said. “It was all those things that made it special. We spent all that time together, whether working or playing.” 

After work, the Marineland employees frequented Admiral Risty’s, a well-loved steak and seafood restaurant in Rancho Palos Verdes. After 52 years, Admiral Risty’s will close on August 17. The Marineland crew wanted to get one more in before another beloved establishment bit the dust, so they gathered for lunch at the oceanfront restaurant before hopping over to Nelson’s down the road at Terranea.

Sea Lions perform for a full stadium at Marineland in the 1970’s. Photo courtesy of the Palos Verdes Library

This Land Has An Eternal Soul

Marineland was purchased by SeaWorld and shut down overnight on February 11, 1987. SeaWorld closed Marineland, motivated by the need for a male orca to sire calves in SeaWorld’s breeding program. Orky, a male and Corky a female were both taken to the San Diego park.

“A lot of people were really upset. Our lives were torn apart and the animals were taken,” recalled another Marineland employee at the reunion. “We knew what we cared for here, and I’m not saying SeaWorld was evil. But we knew we were great, and this was our home. It’s like if you hand your kids to someone else to take care of.”

The grounds and buildings of Marineland were left deserted for the next decade. Locals taught their kids to drive on the large Marineland parking lot and residents went for evening strolls with their dogs along the Long Point bluffs. Finally, in 1999, the planning and permitting process for Terranea Resort began. It opened in 2009.

“Everyone who worked at Marineland loved working there. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t,” said Gaye Vancans, Terranea’s director of community relations. “They say it was a special place. And to this day, everyone who works at Terranea says the same thing. I personally think there is something spiritual about this place.”

Relics of the old Marineland can still be found at Terranea. In 1983, the entire Marineland pier was destroyed by a single wave. Just one piling remained standing. It’s still visible from the Terranea shoreline trails. Back in Marineland days, sea lions would gather on this post, known to Marineland employees as Sea Lion Pointe, to snarf on the nutrient-rich backwash from Marineland’s dolphin pools. Sea lions continue to beach here despite the lack of chummy water. 

“I still feel like I’m at Marineland here,” Shafer said during the reunion at Terranea. “I come here and I leave here so peaceful. They’ve kept so much of it kind of intact, spiritually.”

Though Terranea is a luxury resort, it emphasizes sustainably practices. When the resort was built, demolition debris was used to fill elevation changes. The 40 coral trees that had matured on the land were replanted on the Terranea site. 

“We’ve tried very hard to honor the history of the land,” Vancans said. “We even had Tongva chief Virginia Carmelo bless the place.”

Terranea’s contemporary Asian restaurant Bashi is an homage to the Ishibashi family, who were the first of approximately 40 Japanese farming families to use a no-irrigation, dry farming method to grow peas, cucumbers, beans, and tomatoes in the Palos Verdes. Annie Ishibashi ran a produce stand whose slogan was “Deliciously yours.” It was beloved by Marineland employees and locals. 

“We just all had a great time,” Shafer said with a smile as the reunion wound down. “I look at everybody here and it seems like nothing’s changed.”

 

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