A Mermaid Walks Into A City Maintenance Yard...

looking for an old friend.

Update September 2021: in honor of the potential return of Marineland of the Pacific’s original Bubbles the Pilot Whale sculpture to public view, we’re making our debut subscriber edition newsletter from April 2020 free to view. Read more about the new Bubbles campaign here or contribute to their fundraising effort here. And if you enjoy this post and want more Los Angeles history and preservation news, we hope you’ll sign up for the Esotouric newsletter, available in free and subscriber editions.

Gentle reader,

We’re grateful that you’ve signed up to receive this special subscriber’s edition of the Esotouric newsletter, launched to provide us with some income while our tour business is shuttered during the pandemic. Thank you for believing in us!

Since 2005, first with the 1947project blog and since 2007 as Esotouric, we’ve been on a full time treasure hunt in the archives and byways of Southern California, seeking out gems that illuminate and transform our understanding of the history and culture of this remarkable place. And while many of our discoveries have found their way into our tours, blogs, podcasts, social media and books, we’ve kept others under wraps.

Until now.

Lean in close as we’ll tell you a story about a beloved lost artifact of cool mid-century Southern California culture and how we set out on a quest with a real-live mermaid to see it for ourselves.

In November 2015, we took a packed bus to the Palos Verdes peninsula for Richard’s Thanksgiving weekend birthday tour, which was captured in photos here.

If you’ve ever been on one of these birthday tours, you know that they’re different from our regular outings. They last all day instead of running noon to 4pm, go to places that are even farther off the beaten path, and usually feature a cameo from Richard’s mother, sharing embarrassing childhood stories on the mic.

And on this birthday tour, we had a surprise guest waiting in the wings. After viewing the exhibition of Marineland of the Pacific artifacts at the Point Vicente Interpretive Center, the group gathered at the cliff top amphitheater facing the sea for a picnic lunch.

Joining us there was Palos Verdes native daughter Lori, who as a young woman had appeared at Marineland as a mermaid, skintight fishtail and all!

She shared tales of her experiences in the pools, her special relationship with the resident walrus, and how her parents had played an integral role in the development of California’s first Oceanarium—her diver father collecting live specimens for display, her creative mother helping to brand and promote the attraction.

It was a thrill for our guests to meet a mermaid, and they peppered her with questions about backstage life at Marineland and growing up as comfortable in the waves as on land.

And when we unveiled Richard’s birthday cake at the end of the tour day, the edible photo frosting featured a colorized vintage photo of Lori the mermaid basking in the warm Palos Verdes sun.

These madcap, one-off birthday tours wouldn’t go smoothly without a lot of preparation, so few weeks beforehand, we’d spent a day on the Palos Verdes peninsula, fine tuning the locations, eyeballing bus turning ratios, coordinating with the historic sites we planned to visit, and of course hanging out with Lori the mermaid.

We got to talking about Marineland’s sad closure, long years of deterioration, the park’s ultimate demolition, and how it was hard to get a sense of the place at the fancy new Terranea Resort that had replaced it.

That’s when Lori lit up and asked if we wanted to go visit her old pal Bubbles The Whale.

Bubbles? The famous performing pilot whale who was lassoo’d off Catalina in 1957 by Frank “Boots” Candrino, Fortunato “Frank” Brocato and Bene Falcone, the San Pedro fishermen who trawled the California coast on the 40-foot Geronimo, snaring sea creatures for display?

When captured, Bubbles was 1600 pounds and 12 feet long, and the young whale put up a valiant, five-hour fight before being towed to shore. She would be the pioneer in a new type of animal attraction, introducing generations to the wonders of our ocean-going mammal cousins, in an era before trapping whales to train as circus acts came to be viewed as morally repugnant.

Was Lori the Mermaid talking about that Bubbles? Not exactly.

Bubbles had become so famous, that Marineland invited the Natural History Museum’s master model maker / skeleton articulator Leonard Bessom to reproduce her, life sized in fiberglass. Bubbles survived three years in captivity before choking on a rock. Her death was kept secret from the public (and from The Munsters), and a series of pilot whales took on the performing name Bubbles.

In 1975, Marineland’s entrance sign was redesigned to feature Blessom’s sculpture of Bubbles in her signature leaping pose, flanked by a pair of Pacific white-sided dolphins and a stylized concrete whale spout.

When Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (owners of Sea World) bought Marineland in 1986, they claimed it was financially unfeasible to continue operation, moved the valuable breeding Orca pair to San Diego, and filled the pool drains with cement. L.A. County’s beloved oceanarium with its Pereira and Luckman designed campus would never be revived.

Vandals soon made their mark on Bubbles, and Rancho Palos Verdes decided to remove her for safekeeping. The figure was gently lifted free and trucked to the city maintenance yard.

That was three decades ago. And it was this Bubbles that Lori had invited us to see.

When a real-live mermaid invites you to meet her pal the whale, you don’t dilly dally. We zipped on over to the civic center and followed our pal through the chain link gate and over to a big tree. A huge blue tarp billowed in the wind. Poking out of it, a black fin. Bubbles!

It felt quite magical to peel back the tarp and reveal Lori’s old friend, this lifelike model of the famous cetacean who had inspired generations of kids to respect non-human creatures. Even after long years lying on her side in the dirt, Bubbles seemed very real, and we were all thrilled to be close to her.

Old friends, reunited.

So, what’s up with Bubbles now?

About a year after we visited her, Rancho Palos Verdes resident Robert Craig stumbled upon the whale while walking his dog, and petitioned the city to reinstall the sculpture in a public place. City Council seemed agreeable, and a city staffer produced a report on possible sites she could be placed on Point Vicente.

Craig declared victory, but as too often happens when politicians bend to public pressure, once the pressure was off, nothing happened.

But maybe that’s for the best. While the City’s last action, in March 2017, was to seek a designer to further develop the installation ideas, none of the proposals called for the recreation of the iconic towering whale spout sign, which we think ought to be an option. It was a very cool sign.

Maybe when the lights come on again in Southern California, there will be another chance to bring Bubbles out of retirement. We could all use a little bit of the magic we felt when Lori the Mermaid led us through the dusty city yard and back in time, to when she wore a skintight fishtail and her pal Bubbles was the star attraction at Marineland of the Pacific.

yours for Los Angeles,

Kim & Richard