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Marineland signs were hidden in a sand dune for 80 years — until Tropical Storm Nicole

 One of three vintage Marine Studios signs found by beachgoers after Tropical Storm Nicole's impact on area beaches.
One of three vintage Marine Studios signs found by beachgoers after Tropical Storm Nicole's impact on area beaches.

Beachgoers checking the sands near historic Marineland after Nicole found classic metal signs of the St. Johns County attraction's past as a film studio.

Rusted and warped, they represent slices of St. Johns County's cinematic and tourist history of about 80 years ago.

Now the discovery of classic signs that once pointed the way to Marineland when it was known 84 years ago as Marine Studios have been uncovered in a dune near the historic attraction on State Road A1A.

Their discovery is due to Tropical Storm Nicole's effect on the sands, not the work of an archaeologist.

Tropical Storm Nicole caused an estimated $34 million in damage to St. Johns County when it hit Florida's coast on Nov. 10, officials said. That includes massive erosion to many of its beachfronts as well as flooding in historic downtown St. Augustine.

Marineland sits on the beachfront at 9600 Oceanshore Blvd., about 16 miles from St. Augustine and just south of the Matanzas Inlet. It was near that inlet about two miles away that a beachgoer came upon the twisted old signs, estimated to date back to just after Marine Studios opened in 1938, Facility Historian Terran McGinnis said.

It's an exciting discovery, but the community's reaction to the discovery is even more satisfying, she said.

"We already have a huge collection of Marineland items from years past — laboratory equipment, photographs, movie scripts, animal records, correspondence, blue prints, employee records, newspaper articles, etc.," she said. "So it's not the items themselves that excited me as much as the enthusiasm from the gentleman who initially found them. ... And the huge response from the public when I posted the story on social media. I love our history and I love sharing it with the public, so seeing people get as excited as I do was very satisfying."

Marineland opened in June 1938 as Marine Studios, designed for Hollywood filmmakers to shoot underwater footage for motion pictures and newsreels. A newspaper clipping posted on Marineland's website indicates that almost 30,000 people jammed the oceanfront attraction on the first day, and it quickly became known as the world’s first oceanarium.

In the 1950s, Marine Studios became Marineland of Florida, one of the state’s leading public attractions, with as many as 500,000 guests per year, its website states. In 2004, older deteriorated structures were shut down and a new, updated facility focusing on education and animal-human interactions began. The attraction reopened in 2006 as Marineland’s Dolphin Conservation Center, then was acquired in 2011 by Georgia Aquarium and renamed Marineland Dolphin Adventure. And the historic arch entrance was restored and rededicated in 2018.

The warped signs were found near the dune walkover on the ocean side of the Matanzas Inlet the day after Nicole ravaged the area, McGinnis said. The storm's effect on Marineland was minimal, she said.

"Our facility was built for storms like this and has been tested multiple times," she said. "We took one day for cleanup and reopened on Saturday. The road, including the Matanzas Bridge, is open and in fine condition. The main damage was to the dune just north of Marineland, which had been damaged during Ian and was not yet fully restored, allowing water and sand to wash through to A1A."

A beachgoer spotted the signs and called her on the Friday after Nicole hit, McGinnis said. He had been treasure-hunting when he found them, three in all.

 One of the two classic Marine Studios (now Marineland) directional signs uncovered on Nov. 10 by Tropical Storm Nicole on a Matanzas Inlet beach.
One of the two classic Marine Studios (now Marineland) directional signs uncovered on Nov. 10 by Tropical Storm Nicole on a Matanzas Inlet beach.

"I got there early afternoon of the same day and was able to find two of the three signs, no longer on the walkover, now somewhat buried in the sand," McGinnis said. "The one I was not able to find was the one in the best condition. I presume, but do not know for sure, that someone took that one.

The remaining signs are difficult to read due to rust and warping, one clearly showing the outline of a stylized dolphin leaping out of the water. Both appear to have arrows and the word "miles" on them, so McGinnis said she believes they are directional signs pointing people to Marine Studios.

"They may have been road signs, but I do not know for sure," she said.

McGinnis said she does not know whether wind or waves uncovered them. But right now, she has consulted the restoration team at the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, which actively seeks out shipwrecks in the county's historic waters as well as a professional metal conservator.

"I am waiting for final quotes on how much restoration will cost," she said. "The goal would be to preserve the signs so they can be displayed at Marineland or at any of the three museum exhibits we currently have throughout the community in Flagler and St. Johns counties. We already have a huge collection of items in a very robust archive collection, so these signs will be small but exciting additions."

Copyright 2022 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Dan Scanlan