A derelict titan of Western Australian tourism, the sheer mention of the Atlantis Marine Park near Two Rocks was once enough to elicit story after story of sunburn, sea mammals and limestone sculptures.
Hundreds of thousands of Western Australians took the trip up the coast to see the park at its peak in the early 80s. What they saw was dolphins flipping on command, seals (occasionally riding horses), turtles, pelicans, penguins, swans – all the things you could expect from an experience once billed ‘the greatest spectacle the west has ever seen’.
Watercooler conversation and reminiscent Facebook post aside the plight of Atlantis has been largely relegated to the photo albums of the state’s suburban middle class and the social media snaps of their offspring.
To say it was never meant to end this way would be a stretch – Atlantis was essentially set up as a short-sighted land sales technique by the Japanese corporation Tokyu and part of the broader Yanchep Sun City plan which never quite filled its potential.
The plan was to encourage people to recognise the beauty of the coastal land north of Perth and then sink a bunch of cash into it. People certainly flocked north, but the vision once held for the area went largely unfulfilled and forgotten.
The impact on the region wasn’t all short term. In stark contrast to the mythical city after which the park was named, the ruins of Atlantis Marine Park are there for all to see. Two Rocks is so sleepy a fishing town that the land on which the park once stood has sat largely untouched for decades.
Lizards and snakes roam where dolphins once wowed the crowds, making a home amongst the sea breeze battered sculptures left behind on Tokyu’s departure. Water tanks serve as canvas for local graffiti artists, and the abandoned mattress to land area ratio is surprisingly high.
All this sits beneath the watchful eye of a trident wielding, monolithic structure of King Neptune – the park’s semi-tacky pièce de résistance which grimaces in the general direction of the Indian Ocean as a permanent reminder of everything Bond-era WA stood for.
But the Atlantis legacy stretches a little further than the teenager/backpacker/serpent breeding ground the site has become in 2017. Atlantis was once a dolphin breeding ground, and someone had to look after the dolphins.
Atlantis’ Antarctic link
Ok so breeding ground is a bit of a stretch, but dolphins were the star of the show at Atlantis and there were three calves born in the park in the late 80s.
Seven dolphins – Rajah, Nero, Frodo, Rani, Mila, Lulu and Karleen – made up the park’s initial intake and became something of local celebrities.
The dolphins were caught in the nearby ocean by a team of park staff, who would gain the their trust with food and play, before taking a blood sample to test for genetic defects and taking the strongest, healthiest dolphins into captivity.
Similar means were used to take captive the park’s other mammals – sea lions, seals, penguins and turtles among them. But the dolphins were the stars. Trained to take part in themed shows and getting to know park staff, they became the motif of everything Atlantis stood for.
In the early days the animals were cared for by scruffy-haired Murdoch University science graduate Nick Gales – straight out of school and with little world experience behind him.
For Gales, Atlantis was a springboard to a bigger, better and somewhat ethically conflicting career path. Now a doctor and marine mammal advocate, he serves as the Director of Australia’s Antarctic Division as well as Australia’s Commissioner to the International Whaling Commission. Gales was a Tasmanian Australian of the Year Nominee in 2017 and until recently served as the president of the Society of Marine Mammalogy.
It’s a far cry from work at a water park.
Gales worked as the park vet for its notably successful first four years, before leaving to take up a dream job with the Antarctic Division. However, fate intervened and he ended up back at the sexy Seaworld equivalent in the mid-80s.
“I was really keen to get into applied marine mammal research, and decided I had to add to my vet career with a PhD so I could properly pursue a research career,” he said on the phone from Tasmania.
“I was effectively wooed by the Atlantis Marine Park to come back. It had quite a few problems during the years I’d been away, and they said ‘look, come back and run the veterinary side and the management of the animals and we’ll support you through your PhD.
“It was an offer too good to refuse, really.”
It was in Gales’ second stint at Atlantis that Tokyu Corporation decided the park was no longer economically viable. Rani, Mila and Karleen gave birth within months of each other in 1989, and bigger tanks were required to satisfy the needs of an increasingly environmentally conscious regulatory system.
Gales was commissioned by the state government to run the world-first release program for the Atlantis animals following their decade in captivity. Three of the dolphins failed to adapt to ocean life and wound up at Underwater World, with the remainder set free to a life in the ocean.
It was essentially the last involvement of anyone in the official Atlantis narrative.
The ethics question is one that recurs as we talk over the memories of Atlantis – Gales remembers his experience fondly and is grateful to Tokyu for their financial and professional support of his development. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing in terms of moral conflict at the time, or even in retrospect.
“If you were to propose a modern day Atlantis now it would be massively controversial,” he said.
“It was controversial back then and there were people who quite passionately opposed to dolphins in particular, but also sea lions and other animals being held in captivity. I understand that, and I have to say I probably hold a lot of those views now.
“There was a healthy tension.”
The show business side of things – commercialising wild animals for entertainment and profit – never sat particularly well. But the graduate turned doctor turned Antarctica boss took a lot of motivation from the merit he saw in the educational side of Atlantis.
“I think the issues, especially then, of using the animals as involuntary ambassadors for their species and driving conservation issues was a very powerful tool, albeit that beyond my control and taste some of the shows were very glitzy and showbiz,” he said.
“That’s not me, however we still did a lot of that base outreach explaining why dolphins are important and why people should care about marine life. I did my PhD on Australian sea lions in the end, and having them there and using them as a way of letting people know how rare they are was very powerful.
“I think that was a strong part of some comfort I had in justifying it. The other part was the enormous lengths we went to to provide leading edge care for the time.”
So is there room for an Atlantis Marine Park in 2017?
“Times have changed a lot,” Dr Gales said.
“Now there are many more effective ways of getting those conservation messages out, and for people to directly interact with wild animals.”
He hasn’t been back to Two Rocks in many years, but Gales still remembers well the place it was and the place it’s come to be.
“My wife and I built our first house up there, so it would be great fun to drive up and look at where the house is and how its developed or changed, or not, over all those intervening years,” he said.
“I occasionally see photos taken of the place – the ‘once was Atlantis’ site. It looks a bit sad in a lot of ways.”
Photos of Atlantis Marine Park by Colin McGinn; Photos of Atlantis site in 2017 by Jack McGinn.