A new family came to Brookfield in 1961″the Tursiops Truncatuses”and they moved into their new, ultra modern home that looked like something from the TV world of the Jetsons.
The family also known as the Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin came to live at Brookfield Zoo at the newly built Seven Seas Panorama dolphinarium, at the zoo’s western section where the Living Coast exhibit is today.
The notion of a Panorama had been a favorite idea of long time zoo Director Robert Bean’s, and he spent several years researching the problems associated with such a project, and then finding their solutions. Obtaining salt water, keeping the water clean and maintaining an even temperature of both air and water were only a few of the many complications.
Ground was broken for the “Marineland of the Middle West,” then also known as the “Porpoise, Seal, and Penguin Show,” at noon on Thursday, Dec. 17, 1959. The first shovel full of earth was turned over by Daniel J. Ryan, president of the Cook County Board. Notably, his father performed the same sort of ceremony back in 1922, for the groundbreaking of the original zoo.
It was hoped, at the time, that the “whale of a project” would be ready for a July 4, 1960 opening date. But the long winter, combined with the installation of the complicated water pumps and filters added to the delay. So the 182,000 gallons of salt water needed to fill the marine tank couldn’t even begin to flow in until September 1960.
The price of this first inland exhibit of salt water-living creatures was approximately $1 million dollars, and much of that total was raised from peanut sales at the zoo.
Olsen and Vrbain were the original architects, with later input from architect Russell Read. The Chicago firm of Campbell, Lowrie and Lautermilch acted as the general contractor for the project.
In January 1960 it was reported that “the facilities [would] be large enough to house and display porpoises, sea lions, elephant seals, sea otters and even a fair-sized whale.” The latter never made an appearance at the Panorama.
While “dolphins” are the more exact name for these warm water-living mammals [and they are not fish, even though they do live in water], they are more popularly known as “porpoises.” They are of a variety of toothed whales, and range in length from six to eight feet and weigh from 275 to 300 pounds.
At first, it was thought that actual sea water would have to be transported to the zoo, but later that year, it was determined that ordinary Lake Michigan water would be used, in combination with the zoo’s own well water, which would eventually replace the lake water.
Since the well water, by law, was purified by chlorine, which was “unpleasant to dolphins,” this particular mineral had to be removed by running the water through a filter, and aerating it at the same time. Thus, the zoo invented “artificial sea water.” Years later, a ground coral filter was substituted.
The Morton Salt Company provided the 32 tons of crude salt necessary to maintain a uniform 2-percent salinity. By 1967, a 3-percent salinity standard had been adopted. Plastic-lined filters recirculated the slightly salty water at a rate of 2,000 gallons per minute through exposed plastic pipes. It was estimated at the beginning that from 5 to 10 percent of the water would have to be replaced every day due to splashing, evaporation and waste removal.
The main pool under the Panorama’s plexiglass dome was 100 feet long and 25 feet wide with its deepest point being 16 feet at the center. It held 182,000 gallons of water. The dome over the water area was said to be removable during summer weather.
On Tuesday, Aug. 1, 1961 the people of the Chicagoland area had their first chance to get up close and personally wet by the four dolphins–Vickie, Maggie, Tommy and Power. In January, they had been caught in the Atlantic Ocean and wet air-shipped, on soggy foam mattresses from Florida’s Miami Seaqarium to the Zoo. The Panorama had been completed to the point by that time, so they could be cared for.
John Donahue, the porpoises’ youthful trainer, came here with them and soothed them into their new environment. He also taught them a few tricks, such as high jumping, ringing a bell for fish, leaping hurdles and wearing hats.
Through portholes on the walls of the walls of the hallways beneath the pool, and on surface level areas, visitors could freely watch the dolphins swim by, swooshing through the water. For a modest fee, and an ankle-strengthening climb up a few ramps, the dolphin show could be viewed without any barriers, at a cost of 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. By early September thousands of visitors came away both impressed and amused by the dolphins’ antics.
The “ham actors” appeared to adjust well to their new surroundings, performing four times every day and five times on Sundays and holidays. Elsewhere in the zoo, it was then the norm for visitors to buy small cellophane bags of peanuts and marshmallows to throw to animals, such as the polar bears. However, here a strict ban was enforced on throwing any type of food or material into the Panorama pool.
West of the main dome were smaller tanks and underground grottos where walruses and the noisy sea lions could be viewed for no charge. The Brookfield Village Hall received a telephone call on Friday, Sept. 1, from a woman at her own home, complaining that the barking of the sea lions “kept her awake at night, and bothered her during the day.” She also reportedly “demanded that the vocal chords of the seals be severed.” A small newspaper article in the aftermath of the complaints was headlined “Why not disconnect your eardrums, lady?”
As far as can be determined, the seals were not prevented from exercising their right to bark.
Olga the Walrus reigned, for 27 years, at one of the tanks to the west of the Panorama pavilion. She came to Brookfield Zoo when she was only 6 months old, in 1962.
Years later, on every June 17, her birthday, the zoo would throw a party for Olga. While human visitors ate cake, she would get a bucket of her favorite treats, clams. At Christmas, well-wishers even sent her Christmas cards.
As the decades passed, visitors often stopped to admire Olga’s 1.5 tons of hulking beauty and she often blew kisses, waved and sprayed them with water. Then in midsummer, 1988, she was found not to be eating her usual 40 to 60 pounds of fish per day. At 4:30 a.m., on Sunday, Aug. 14, 1988, she died of old age in her favorite spot at the new Seven Seas Dolphinarium.
The years were telling on the old building. Decay due to salt water was the main culprit. Floors were crumbling, tanks were leaking and even small sections of the roof began to fail. Then in August 1978, the Panorama suffered from a fire that began in a small ventilation fan used in the building’s kitchen.
The Brookfield Fire Department responded quickly and the blaze was quickly extinguished. But, of greater concern was whether the toxic smoke would affect the dolphins. The trainers watched over the animals, who didn’t seem to be affected too seriously.
In 1985, a bond issue paved the way for the construction of a new Seven Seas Panorama building in the zoo’s northeastern section. As revolutionary as the older one had been when it opened, now a larger more improved one would take its place. Ground for it was broken in the fall of 1985, after the zoo’s perimeter railroad line made its last trip, forever.
Now would come a larger seating capacity, and bigger and more pools, such as holding pools, a medical support pool and a demonstration pool. The Seven Seas would be bigger and better run than ever. The seaweed cutting ceremony on June 6, 1987 officially opened the $13 million project to visitors. The dolphins were moved here earlier in the spring, but found themselves being moved back to their old home again, when it was discovered that the new pools were leaking due to a faulty tank liner.
Fortunately, the old facility had been kept operational, because it was believed that once everything was turned off, it would never be able to function again. The dolphins soon moved back to their new, repaired quarters, and never went back to their first home again, at which approximately 11.5 million people eagerly watched their daily routines.
By 1990, the old Seven Seas pool had been drained. The filters that had operated for over 26 years had been shut down and the old building became dry and silent. Even more decay began to set in, due to weathering and the ever-present influence of salt water that had soaked everything over the years. The building was finally demolished in the early 1990s to make room for the new Living Coast Exhibit on the same site.
The four pools at the new Seven Seas hold over a million gallons of water. The filters are constantly monitored by a computerized system. The main performance pool alone is 110 feet long and 40 feet wide, and holds 800,000 gallons of salt water. It can accommodate up to 2,000 persons.
As in the old Seven Seas Panorama, there is also here a below-ground level viewing area, comprised of eight 8-foot square windows that particularly take you into the dolphins’ watery living room. The old Seven Seas’ windows were only a puny 3-by-4 feet in comparison.
Now, the new Seven Seas Panorama building serves both dolphins and their interested visitors better than ever before. Cleverly and naturally landscaped both inside and out, it still attracts the attention of modern zoo goers.
Many others still remember the old “flying saucer,” anchored at the bottom that played host to the earlier citizens of another watery world.