Hurricane Katrina

The untold story of Marine Life dolphins left to ride out Katrina in tanks on the Gulf

The iconic metal roof looked like waves undulating over Marine Life Oceanarium on the Gulf, where eight dolphins, 19 sea lions and a seal were left to fend for themselves during Hurricane Katrina.

The miraculous ocean rescue of all eight dolphins and the land-side recapture of 13 sea lions overshadowed the story of why these animals rode out Katrina on waterfront property 4 feet above sea level and the conflict that ensued once Katrina left the popular tourist attraction in ruins.

“The facts speak for themselves,” said David Lion, who became Marine Life president and CEO after the hurricane. “Dolphins are amazing, amazing animals, with their sonar and their ability to swim, their athleticism. It is amazing. But you certainly would not want to intentionally leave any animal or human facing that type of danger.”

When Katrina’s waves retreated and her winds died that Monday afternoon, five Marine Life employees made their way to the park.

What he saw astonished Jeffrey Siegel, a Marine Life employee who held various positions, including director of operations — and a man whose relationship with dolphins was cemented in childhood.

Dolphins were the first creatures to offer him unconditional friendship, he said. He was an introverted child hard of hearing, bullied by classmates and even teachers. The dolphins he swam with in a California marine park did not care.

Katrina’s surge had knocked down the steel beams supporting the metal roof, which lay in tatters twisted over and around a 20-foot-tall tank where the dolphins were left.

Siegel climbed the debris to the top of the tank and peered into the noxious, muddy water below.

He said in a recent interview: “I climbed into the tank, climbed down the debris, would hold my breath in the water where you couldn’t see anything and, using my hands, for about an hour I probed every inch of the bottom of that pool, fully expecting to find all the dolphin carcasses in there. I didn’t find any. And I looked under every piece of debris.

“I got out of the tank and I go, ‘Look, they’re not in there. They went home. They’re back in their original home in the Gulf.”

Katrina packed a surge of at least 28 feet, topping the tank. Thirty-six years earlier, three of eight dolphins left in the tank were still there after Hurricane Camille, a Sun Herald account said. Camille, a much smaller but stronger hurricane, packed a 24-foot surge.

There, the similarities ended. Marine Life reopened two years after Camille. The property sits vacant today; faint rings in the grass are the only reminder dolphins once lived here in tanks and pools.

At 49, Marine Life was one of the oldest aquatic parks in the country, and it showed even before Katrina finished it off.

Years of litigation ensued after Katrina between the company’s owner, Don Jacobs, and its former president and CEO, Moby Solangi. who was running the park when Katrina hit but was later fired.

The claims and counter-claims included the future of the park’s dolphins, beloved by South Mississippians who had worked at the park as teenagers, or visited as children, then as parents and grandparents.

The evacuation

In sworn testimony, Jacobs, who died in 2011, said people in the marine-mammal industry were asking him after the hurricane why the animals were left at Marine Life in the first place. Solangi said six dolphins were evacuated to inland motel swimming pools, but the tank seemed the safest place for the eight dolphins left behind.

Don Jacobs had some experience with hurricanes and dolphins. After managing Marine Life, the entrepreneur had moved to Sarasota and opened a theme park there in 1964. The Florida park had a dolphin leased to Marine Life when Hurricane Betsy hit in 1965, said Peter Rogers, who worked for Jacobs and is the executor of his estate.

Rogers said the park had to bring a truck to Gulfport and pull the dolphin from the two-story tank through one of the shattered windows. Jacobs bought Marine Life when it reopened after Camille, in 1971. “That was always our protocol,” Rogers said. “Get the animals out of there. Don was very adamant about taking care of the animals. He was just very fond of them.”

An account in The New York Times in 1985 indicates that 21 dolphins were evacuated for Hurricane Elena to swimming pools in three inland motels, much to the delight of guests. Elena’s surge was only 6 feet.

Solangi, who started work at Marine Life in 1981, said evacuation plans hinged on weather forecasts.

“Evacuation was not necessitated for every hurricane or tropical storm that entered the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. “We had successfully coped with a number of storms and hurricanes since 1981. I recall evacuating for only three hurricanes, and only one involved moving some of the dolphins and sea lions to hotel swimming pools.”

Weather reports indicated on Friday, three days before Katrina, that the storm would hit west of Mississippi. Marine Life was open for business the next day, a Saturday. Two employees, Jeffrey Siegel and Paula Carrigan, said they were already moving records and equipment from the marine park.

At 1 p.m. Saturday, Harrison County emergency managers strongly urged evacuation, but did not order mandatory evacuations until 24 hours later.

The National Weather Service added coastal Mississippi to its hurricane watch at 4 p.m. Saturday. A NWS forecast at 7 p.m. Saturday predicted 25-foot waves.

Peter Rogers rode to the park Sunday afternoon with Don Jacobs. Jacobs was not happy, according to his later testimony in one of the court cases. He said he thought the trucks and people had been lined up to move all the animals, but that was not the case.

Solangi said he was prepared for evacuation. Eight sea lions were caged and hauled off in a truck. The park’s birds were evacuated.

“There was no place to take all the dolphins,” Solangi said, “or it was too dangerous to safely take them out. In the main tank, we had young dolphins and mammas.”

He added: “It takes many hours to take them out of that big tank. It’s not that easy . . . If a calf would die and all that, then I would have been criticized. ‘My God, why wouldn’t you have left them in that big tank?’ So, you can’t win them all.”

“But if it ends well, you shouldn’t argue about that. We made a decision based on the information and the judgment that we had. And it was absolutely not to compromise the animals.”

The roundup

While the dolphins disappeared in Hurricane Katrina, calls started coming soon enough about the sea lions “running amok” on the Coast, as Jeffrey Siegel put it. “I remember one we came across that evening in Long Beach, 500-, 600-pound bull male sea lion with giant canine teeth -- They don’t call them sea lions for nothing! - was lying across the lap of five people on their porch in Long Beach and they’re petting it like it’s their Saint Bernard.

“Now this sea lion had quite a reputation, but he was so exhausted that he was just, “Ok, I’m tired. Let these people pet me because I’m too tired.’ “

Over the next days, 13 sea lions were rounded up. Six sea lions died, including two euthanized because of their conditions, Solangi said. He said the seal never was located.

Once all the sea lions were caught and resources became available, Siegel said, the dolphin search started.

The Harrison County Sheriff’s Department provided a helicopter, the Coast Guard a boat. The U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has jurisdiction over wild dolphins, provided manpower, equipment and logistical support. The rescuers were working in water filled with debris and contaminated by chicken carcasses swept from the state port next door.

Twelve days after the hurricane, Solangi spotted a group of dolphins from the helicopter just outside Gulfport’s harbor. Marine Life staff members were alerted.

“We got onto the Coast Guard’s boat and we went out and we saw all eight of the dolphins swim up to us,” Siegel said. “Most of us jumped into the water right then and there. And the dolphins came over. The younger ones were nipping on my feet.”

Blair Mase, coordinator of NOAA’s southeast marine mammal stranding network, remembers the sight of those dolphins.

“We were really surprised to see what they looked like,” Mase said. “Many of these animals, if not all, were born in captivity, so they did not have the skills to survive in the wild. And it was apparent when I saw these animals for the first time. They were scratched up and marked up. They definitely looked like they had been through a lot.

The oldest female, Jill, had kept the group together. Marine Life trainers, working with the federal recovery team, fed the dolphins daily, also medicating them for their wounds.

The dolphins were trained, right there in the water, to land on Navy mats so they could be caught.

Jill was the last dolphin in the water. She had lived in the wild before.

“I could see her backing up from the mat,” Siegel said, “scratching her metaphorical dolphin chin: ‘Ok, my job is done. I’ve gotten you the dolphins back that wanted to come back. I want to go back and spend the rest of my life with all these dolphins out here.’ And I could just see her starting to turn away.’‘ She was lassoed by the tail and hauled in.

The Katrina dolphins, as the eight survivors became known, were housed in a huge warehouse at the Seabee base in Gulfport, in a relatively small pools the Navy provided.

A new home

Donald Jacobs was 80 years old and not interested in rebuilding Marine Life. Solangi said Jacobs declared, “I don’t even buy green bananas any more.” It was important to Jacobs that the dolphins be sold as a group, several of his associates said.

Solangi, who had stock in the company that owned the animals, wanted to house the dolphins at other marine facilities until the oceanarium could be rebuilt.

In the end, a judge cleared the way for the sale of Marine Animal Productions’ assets, which included a total of 17 dolphins, to Atlantis resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Jacobs said in his pre-trial testimony that the company fetched $5.6 million.

The dolphin case, filed in Harrison County Chancery Court, remains sealed from public view, but attorneys involved say Jacobs and Solangi settled on undisclosed terms.

“I wanted to continue and leave a legacy behind,” said Solangi, who eventually opened the Institute of Marine Mammal Studies, founded while he was at Marine Life, off Bayou Bernard in Gulfport. “ ... My opportunity to do something and return something back to the community was, in my mind, taken away from me. That was a regret, but I came back and I’m going to come back.”

Atlantis is a new resort. Its Dolphin Cay attraction is spread over 14 acres and allows tourists to swim with the dolphins. It was still under construction when Siegel visited after the Katrina dolphin’s arrived in January 2006. They were acclimated to their new habitat in fresh seawater pools, according to “The Katrina Dolphins: One-Way Ticket to Paradise,” a coffee-table book by California wildlife conservationist Georgeanne Irvine.

Jill had been languishing in the small warehouse pool back in Gulfport, said Siegel, who spent many hours with her there. So imagine his surprise when he saw her right after the dolphins’ arrival.

“In the Bahamas, after the second day, this 40-something-year-old dolphin was acting like an eight-year-old dolphin,” Siegel said. “She was jumping from one area to another to visit every dolphin. It blew the minds of the Atlantis staff because this big, 600-pound dolphin in her 40s is jumping, literally, across huge docks to get from one area to another like an exuberant little child.”

“She was uncontrollable. She was her own dolphin. And to see her that day, with the energy and the exuberance of a dolphin half her age - obviously living it up like she had never lived before - was a powerful experience.”

Ana Sherman, a Bahamian dolphin trainer at Atlantis, leads guests during a shallow-water dolphin interaction at Dolphin Cay. The visitors stand in waist-deep water, reaching out to touch a dolphin that swims past. The dolphin splashes and jumps on command, too. Each guest has the opportunity to hug, kiss and take photos with the dolphin.

On a day in May, Noah, one of the rescued Katrina dolphins, is the star of the interaction.

“He’s the love of my life,” said Sherman, who works with Noah only occasionally now, after consistently working with the animal for four years.

“Noah still has the largest chunk of my heart,” she said.

The survival story “definitely adds to the respect factor,” Sherman said.

“Someone would come into (Dolphin Cay) and wouldn’t even know half of what he’s been through in his lifetime.”

Sixteen of the 17 Katrina dolphins are still alive — Tessie was gravely ill prior to coming to the Bahamas and died a short time later. According to Ryan Dean, associate director of Maine Mammals Operations at Atlantis, the dolphins are “doing really, really well.”

Jill is the matriarch at Dolphin Cay and still looks out for the Katrina dolphins, Dean said.

“Every now and then they have spats between them and if you want them to simmer down, you put Jill in the pool and she will be the peacemaker,” Dean said.

Anita Lee is a Mississippi native who specializes in investigative, court and government reporting. She has covered South Mississippi’s biggest stories in her decades at the Sun Herald, including the Dixie Mafia, public corruption and Hurricane Katrina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort. Nothing upsets her more than government secrecy and seeing people suffer.
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