Sea Change

Locals work to transform Marineland’s forgotten entrance sculpture from beached to beautiful.

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  • Written by
    Chris Ridges

Families, ocean-life enthusiasts and other visitors found it a bit of an ordeal traveling to and finding Marineland of the Pacific in 1954. The world’s largest oceanarium of its time was located in a spectacular setting deep in the south end of the Palos Verdes Peninsula coastline. It was worth it once you arrived, though, and was like nowhere else on earth. It was another world.

Marineland beat Disneyland by a cool 365 days, making it California’s first major theme park. It cost nearly $3 million to build. The park had been having its ups and downs financially after its first few years and needed something new, exciting and fantabulous to bring in the crowds. 

Enter Bubbles. 

Bubbles became a huge, instant hit for the park after being caught in 1957. At 13 feet in length, the first female pilot whale ever captured and displayed in public found immediate and worldwide attention. She was drawing them in. 

So popular and long-lasting was the whale’s success, a monumental likeness was ordered, designed and cast—twice her size at 26 feet long and 7 feet wide. There could have been worse ways to exploit the worldwide popularity created by the loveable phenomenon. 

The captivating sculpture was designed by Leonard Bessom and installed permanently at Marineland’s updated 1975 entrance, welcoming visitors while looming over their cars as they (finally!) ended their long drive finding the place. The statue was beautifully produced in black-hued fiberglass and from every angle looked as magnificent and overwhelmingly powerful as its subject—while still retaining the lighthearted and elegant playfulness Bubbles’ fans had grown to love. 

The solid and sturdy installation and placement was executed with a flair and panache worthy of William Pereira’s original 1954 structures located within the park. Two dolphins were added near the statue’s base, swimming cooperatively alongside.

Now this was an entrance! The sculpture, along with the 414-foot-tall Sky Tower (another Marineland attraction, which offered the most dramatic view of the surrounding coast ever experienced, added to the park in 1966) stood together for years. 

Unfortunately, Marineland was infamously purchased and rapidly closed amongst much controversy in 1987. Talk about abandonment issues … all the whales and other substantial species were shipped down the 405 to San Diego’s Sea World. Other marine life was distributed among various local outlets. 




All the trees and shrubs were left immediately without water, putting the drought-resistant species to their test. Green leaves faded, browned and died. The staff was let go, and the fun stopped. Not even the locals found it appealing to visit. 

The huge exhibition tanks were dismantled and removed along with any other potentially dangerous structures. What was left of the park became a ghost town that decayed over two decades. 

The 1995 demolition of the Sky Tower left Marineland of the Pacific sunk for good. Film studios saw a great opportunity, both beautiful and cheap, to film MTV beach shows and the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

The statue of Bubbles remained, keeping her guard, for nearly two years after the abrupt and thoughtless closing of the park. What a gift that it remained in place for as long as it did. Finally, after vandals had begun to leave their mark on Bessom’s work, the Rancho Palos Verdes Civic Center took the statue in 1988, storing it behind the center’s buildings and pathways. 

Enter Bob. 

Robert Craig was hiking with his daughter this January near the RPV Civic Center’s backlot and happened upon the monument. It was on its side and damaged, left out in the open in a storage area behind the center—beached and forgotten, sun-ravaged and dry. He knew instantly what it was, having seen the sculpture for years in its original location. 

Robert posted a photograph of the sorry find on Facebook, and things went viral. Responses were received instantly, asking how one might help and where donations could be sent to help get Bubbles off the ground. Robert contacted his friend Clarke McTaggart, who shared an immediate interest in the project, and the two began working on what could be done with the iconic treasure. 

After much diligence and perseverance, Robert and Clarke contacted Diana McIntyre, the docent program coordinator and curator with the RPV Interpretive Center. She also happens to be known as the queen of Marineland archives and worked as educational consultant at the park throughout the ‘80s. 

Teaching and educating people with research rather than emotion has always driven Diana—and is the path she continues to follow today. She agreed with Robert and Clarke that the RPV Interpretive Center would be the perfect place to re-install the monument and allow Bubbles to get back up on her tail to continue her watch over the Palos Verdes coast forever. 

With good and well-meant intentions comes reality, and reality means money. Fiberglass is stronger stuff than one might guess, but the repairs needed for the piece and its permanent installation costs will be considerable. 

As of now, efforts are being made by Diana, Robert and Clarke to place the statue in its deserved final and everlasting breach. Please stay in touch and participate in the public outreach process for Lower Point Vicente Park and the potential restoration and placement of Bubbles—things are developing quickly!