Whale of a Turnout : Hundreds Jam Rally to Save Marineland From Wrecking Ball

Times Staff Writer

"Please sign the petition before you go in," the young woman yelled as she stood outside the Cabrillo Marine Museum in San Pedro, her voice carrying far in the night air. "If you would like to volunteer your time, put an X by your name."

Over and over, the woman repeated her request as more than 300 people, many of them parents with children, filed into the museum auditorium for a rally called by those hoping to save Marineland from the wrecking ball.

For close to an hour and a half, the men, women and children listened, applauded, and whooped it up as television camera lights clicked on and the rally's organizers talked about strategies to fend off the park's closure in three weeks.

Some wore Marineland sweat shirts and visor caps; others waved Marineland bumper stickers.

A group of children stood up on cue and sang lyrics in support of the park put to the tune and sentiment of "This Land Is Your Land."

Flyers were handed out urging people not to bad-mouth Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, the Orlando, Fla.-based company that owns Sea World and purchased Marineland last December.

"This is a positive meeting for Marineland," Bryant Winchell, the Palos Verdes Estates resident who organized the rally, told the standing-room-only crowd.

"This is not an anti-Sea World or anti-Harcourt Brace Jovanovich meeting. We are for Marineland. We are not against anyone."

The rally was staged one week after Harcourt announced it was closing the 33-year-old aquatic park because it is losing money and the company would have to spend more than $25 million on improvements to break even. The company has not said how it intends to develop the site's 100 acres of valuable, oceanfront land.

Although organizers had notified Harcourt of the rally, no one from the company addressed the crowd, which grew raucous at times. A chair on the auditorium's stage that had been reserved for a Harcourt representative sat empty.

Edward Asper, a Sea World vice president who is supervising Marineland's closure, said Thursday that he was at Wednesday night's rally, but could not reach the stage because of the large crowd. The rally was interrupted on occasion as people standing in the aisles were urged to move outside so Fire Code regulations would not be violated.

"I was there," Asper said. "I was the 18th person from the door on the left side, or something like that, and couldn't get any closer. I just physically couldn't get through (the crowd)."

Asper, who was raised in the Los Angeles area and worked at Marineland for 15 years before joining Sea World, said he has no objections to speaking to Winchell about the park. But he said the chances that Harcourt would reverse its decision and keep the park open are "zero."

Asper said the he was somewhat surprised by the large number of people who showed up for the 7:30 p.m. rally, but he said he understood the concerns that were voiced about the park and its more than 2,000 animals.

"It has been here over 30 years," said Asper, whose career at Marineland began while he was a high school student. "I'm attached to this facility as well. I guess I would be more surprised if the community and the people who work here had just walked away from it."

Winchell said the idea for the rally grew after a meeting, publicized by word of mouth, was held at his home last Sunday. After coming up with a name for themselves, Citizens to Save Marineland and Its Animals, the group went about establishing various committees.

Winchell told the rally that five committees were set up to spread the word about its efforts and solicit support from schools, politicians, celebrities, the media and the community at large. Committee heads were introduced to the crowd.

Winchell said the chief purpose of the group is to try to convince Harcourt to reverse its decision and keep the park open. But he conceded that such a feat will be difficult.

'Had to Do Something'

"I hope we aren't just tilting at windmills," he said. "But my wife and I felt we had to do something."

Winchell said the group also wants to ensure that the park's marine mammals are well cared for, especially sick and old animals that might not survive a move to another aquatic park. The group also wants Harcourt to pledge that the park's care center for ill or injured sea mammals and birds that are found along area beaches will not be closed. The care center is the only one of its kind in Los Angeles County.

Harcourt has repeatedly said that the animals will be properly cared for during the park's final days. After it closes, some will be taken to Sea World parks in San Diego, Ohio and Florida, and the remainder to zoological facilities scattered throughout the country, the company has said.

"The animals are going to be taken care of as well as they have here and at other Sea World parks," Asper said. "We certainly have the expertise to deal with this project and will do so accordingly."

To Close Eventually

Asper said the care center may operate beyond March 1. However, the center will eventually be closed along with the rest of the park, he said.

Despite the concerns of Winchell and others who attended the rally, Brad Andrews, Marineland's curator and overseer of the care center, said he is confident that another center can be established elsewhere.

Before the rally Wednesday night, Andrews said that two years ago, the Palos Verdes Marine Animal Care Foundation was formed to solicit public support and private donations for the center, which in recent years has treated about 75 marine mammals and 100 birds annually.

Andrews declined to say how much money the foundation has raised, but estimated that 150 people have contributed money that could be used to ensure the center's work is not interrupted.

'Substantial Amount'

"It is a substantial amount to help in a transitional period," he said. "It's not like we are broke and are going out the door blind."

At the rally, some spoke about Marineland's value as an educational tool for Los Angeles area schools, saying scores of young students are taken on field trips to the park each year to learn about marine life.

Still others declared the park a local landmark that should be preserved for its historical significance. The park, which was used for the filming of the television series "Sea Hunt" and for scenes in the movie "The Attack of the Crab Monsters," was one of the first oceanariums in the country.

"We need to let these financial wizards (at Harcourt) know life is more than just dollars and cents," Susan Brooks, a former teacher who helped organize the rally, said in an interview last week.

Another person who said he firmly believes Marineland should remain open was Sean Jenkins. The 16-year-old said he had visited the park "about 30 times" since he moved to Torrance from Ohio three years ago.

"It's been here for a long time, and everybody goes there," Jenkins said. "It's just something that should be here."

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