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Posted by on Mar 9, 2011 in Nature, Science, Writing | 14 comments

Will the real Bubbles please stand up


A funny thing happened on the way to researching my essay on grandmothers…

I was writing about short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) because they are one of the few animals, besides humans, that experience menopause. On that note, I had opened my essay with the story of the first ever pilot whale captured solely for the purpose of public display and entertainment.  She had been caught in 1957, near Santa Catalina Island, California and was put on display at tourist attraction, Marineland of the Pacific.

I had managed to track down a 1960 account by David H. Brown (then Marineland’s Curator of Mammals ) of the 7-year old whale’s capture and her first year at Marineland. He discussed her reaction to captivity (there’s a sad tale) and her behavior towards humans and other sea mammals.  It seemed like a good story and I decided to use it.

Then, to my surprise, while researching grandmother pilot whales I also came across a 2010 press release promoting the “grande dame” of SeaWorld (which replaced Marineland).  “Bubbles” was touted to be the oldest pilot whale in captivity. SeaWorld said that she “began her expansive career at Marineland in the 1960s and was eventually given her own stadium and placed center stage.” Today she is SeaWorld’s biggest draw.

This was perfect!  It had to be the same whale. Now I could use the story of Bubbles, from capture to grandmother, as bookends for my essay.

But first I had to confirm that the original captured whale was indeed named Bubbles. (David Brown’s article was a scientific report. He did identify the whale by name.)  Here Life Magazine (and Google books) came to the rescue, with a 2 page spread showing Bubbles “hamming it up” for audiences at Sea World in 1957.   I also learned that Bubbles had done a cameo on a 1958 episode of Sea Hunt.

That was all I needed and I wrote my essay.

But there was a problem niggling at the back of my mind. The dates didn’t seem to add up. Calculating her age based on her capture in 1957 at “about age 7” put her at over 60 years old. SeaWorld was saying she was in her 40’s.  I supposed that there could have been a mistake in estimating her age back in the 1950’s and maybe it had been readjusted along the way.

I needed to find out if these two whales were the same animal, so I emailed SeaWorld. A few days later came a reply:

Dear Ms. Gerson;

Thank you for your email.  We appreciate hearing from you. We have been caring for Bubbles since 1987. She is a wonderful and amazing animal.  We love her very much. The records show that Bubbles was collected in 1966 and her age was estimated to be approximately 3 years old at that time.  Based on that, her current age is estimated to be in her late 40s.

Thinking maybe I was getting a canned reply, I emailed back, showing my research trail and asking for comment specifically on David Brown’s account and the Life Magazine article. To which they replied:

Hi Kimberly,
It looks like there may have been more than one Bubbles.
Good luck in your research.

So much for that.


  1. I love Bubbles…she has always been my favorite! Bubbles at Sea World is Bubbles (III). The first Bubbles was captured in 1957 and lived at Marineland of the Pacific. So did a second Bubbles, but I don’t know what happened to them. The third Bubbles, captured in 1966 at ~ 3 yrs old, is the one that left Marineland in 1987 and has been at Sea World ever since. I found her listed in an online cetacean database as Bubbles (III) but I can’t seem to find it now to give you the URL. This is the Bubbles I remember from childhood memories at Marineland…I recently discovered that she is still performing at Sea World and can’t wait to see her again next year. Not easy since I don’t live in California anymore. Sea World should have a 50th birthday party for her!

  2. If by chance this is the same one from Marineland. I was there the week before it closed and was about eleven years old at the time. A friend of mine, she had skirted a blocked off area and was giving hand commands to a dolphin that was doing some amazing tricks. There was a pilot whale in the tank as well and seemed distressed. (S) he was laying near the side of the top of the tank and occasionally banding his/her head into the side of the tank. I was at the time in an Oceanography class and thought about how some whales would get depressed. Always was sad and wondered what happened to that whale.

  3. Thank you to Clare R for confirming the Bubbles history, I lived in Palos Verdes, my family moved there in 1959 when I was 9 yrs old. I remember Bubbles very well, she was the first (of whales, Orky and Corky came later). I remain faithful to Bubbles. I did not realize there had been three Bubbles, I am not sure which one I actually saw because we visited Marineland between 1959 and the 1970’s. I thought there was only one (caught in 1957). I am at least glad to hear that the Bubbles from Marineland survived the move to Sea World. By the way, SeaWorld purchased Marineland to gain ownership of Orky and Corky two breeding Orca’s. I am not sure exactly how I feel about SeaWorld, I am very unhappy that the owners of SeaWorld closed Marineland. I live in San Diego now, but I still visit my sister in Palos Verdes and we both (and her children) miss Marineland. However, prior to killer whales being on display in captivity, the general feeling of the public of Orca’s were that they are ferocious beasts, and were used as target practice and even bombed by the Royal Canadian fighter pilots during practice runs. Even the US Navy diving manual warned that these “extremely ferocious” predators “will attack human beings at every opportunity” see “Death at SeaWorld” by David Kirby. Anyway, I miss Marineland and would like to see Bubbles again.

  4. Kathy Harvey – You can see Bubbles at Sea World in San Diego…she is still performing. I wish I still lived in California so I could go see her. She is getting on in years so I think the spinning leaps probably don’t happen as often. See this video I found in 2012 about Bubbles and her trainer:
    Oh I just went to that link and see you replied there – you found her 🙂
    If you get to Sea World, tell Bubbles I love her. Corky too – Thanks!
    Clare R

  5. Before Shamu and Sea World, there was Bubbles and Marineland. Like all animal celebrities (Lassie, Flicka. Flipper etc.) there were more than one animal. The first Bubbles was captured in 1957 – according to Karen Pryor in her ‘Lads Before the Wind: Adventures in Porpoise Training’ ‘Bubbles’ was actually the name given to thirteen pilot whales that lived and performed at Marineland of the Pacific from 1957. I believe the one still alive at Sea World in San Diego was captuired in 1966.

  6. I had heard from John Olguin, one time curator of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, that there had been 7 Bubbles. I’ve also heard that the one and only Bubbles made it from Marineland to SeaWorld. I guess DNA would prove the point.

  7. I was 13 when we caught bubbles off catalina island. Dick bird owned the seal show at marine land and he had a bot called the evac. When he had time we catch porpus for the park. I lived in long beach at the time and that is one of my best memories. Saw bubbles at sea world about 3 years ago. He didn’ remember me but I did him. I sat in a 30 foot life raft all the way form Catalina to the park keeping him wet and hoping he didn’t wake up.

  8. I recall from my childhood in the late 50’s that Bubbles swallowed a ball and died.

  9. Bubbles died Thursday – SeaWorld announced that she was in her ‘late fifties’ and considered ‘geriatric’

    • My heart is breaking…I will always love Bubbles. I was so lucky to see her perform in May 2016. She soaked me in the splash zone and I made eye contact with her when she came to the tank edge with her pal Shadow. I’m blessed to have to have seen her one last time – travelled all the way from North Carolina to see Bubbles! I first saw her at Marineland of the Pacific around 1970 when she and I were both a lot younger. She was so tiny then! Thanks to Marineland and Sea World for taking such good care of her throughout her very special life. Bon Voyage Bubbles…see you at the “Rainbow Bridge”.

      • Thank you for your thoughts Clare. Sounds like you and Bubbles grew up together. Nice memories for you.

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