Laurie Rudock lays flowers at a makeshift memorial after the recent death of a captive orca, Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023, outside the Miami Seaquarium in Key Biscayne, Fla. . (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
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In what could very well be the end of a Miami landmark, Miami-Dade County said Thursday it will seek to evict the current owner of Miami Seaquarium over animal welfare concerns and will not seek a new operator for the 70-year-old park on Virginia Key.

“The current state of the Miami Seaquarium is unsustainable and unsafe,” said Levine Cava at a news conference where she said the county is done trying to find an owner to salvage the dilapidated park.

The Dolphin Co., which operates the marine park, vowed to fight the eviction in the courts. 

“I am saying the mayor is lying. We are going to defend our rights,” said CEO Eduardo Albor, who showed up at the Government Center and held an impromptu competing news conference.

The outcome of the eviction could have a profound impact on the Rickenbacker Causeway, where events at and near the park have long contributed to years of traffic snarls on the roadway connecting Key Biscayne with the mainland. 

The eviction decision marks an abrupt turnaround from what once looked like a partnership between the former home of iconic 1960’s TV show “Flipper” and Miami-Dade County. 

Aerial photo of Biscayne Bay waters off Virginia Key near the Miami Seaquarium. File. May 19, 2023 (KBI Photo/Theo Miller)

Three years ago, Levine Cava heralded The Dolphin Co. taking over the lease, calling it “a new day.” Instead, conditions only worsened at the park, she said. And just a year ago, she was posing for pictures with Albor.

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Eduardo Albor, President of the Dolphin Company, poses for pictures with Commissioner Raquel Regalado and Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, March 30, 2023 to announce a plan to relocate Lolita, a killer whale, to an ocean pen. Levine Cava is now seeking to evict the company over concerns of animal treatment at the marine park on Virginia Key (KBI Photo/Tony Winton)

The County, in its eviction  letter, cited Seaquarium’s failure to “maintain animals in accordance with federal laws and regulations, violation of building codes and failure to maintain accreditation.

The USDA inspectors found a sea lion experiencing blindness from cataracts, rusty bird cages, mold in the penguin house, flamingos wading in dirty water and a dolphin ingesting a nail. High-profile animals have died in the last year – Lolita, the park’s signature orca whale; Sundance, a bottlenose dolphin;and Sushi, a sea lion.

“The current state of the main Seaquarium is not a place that we visited as children and it’s not the place that we want our children to visit,” said County Commissioner Raquel Regalado, whose district includes Virginia Key and Key Biscayne.

The lease termination letter ordered The Dolphin Co. to turn over the property by April 21 and demanded a response by Monday. 

For Key Biscayne residents, the chief concern is that the valuable piece of bayside land will be prime for commercial development and would increase traffic. Levine Cava said the parcel is part of the County’s parks.

 “It’s part of our parks department and their guidance in our charter,” she said.

Regalado was asked what she would tell Key Biscayne residents worried about commercial development of the Seaquarium site.

“We’re committed to doing what’s best for the County and for Key Biscayne,” Regalado said. “Obviously, there is a process. There’s title restrictions, there are state restrictions, there’s County charter restrictions. So it’s a long, long, long way off from any conversation about development.”

Key Biscayne Mayor Joe Rasco said he has been meeting with Levine Cava and Regalado about the parcel’s future. 

“This property is designated as a park in the County’s comprehensive master plan and they are both committed to keeping this land as a park,” Rasco said in a statement. 

The Village has been working on its version of a plan to renovate the Causeway that would contain a form of “express lane” to avoid jams. The County is well into the process of replacing the Bear Cut Bridge, which connects Virginia Key and Key Biscayne.

Miami Seaquarium is home to about 500 dolphins, turtles, manatees, seals, sea lions, birds, reptiles and fish – all belonging or leased by the Dolphin Co. Shanna SImpson, a former Seaquarium whale trainer who has experience moving marine animals, said the task would Herculean to move them.

“This is mind blowing. Obviously, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Because Miami Seaquarium is such a staple in Miami,” said Shanna Simpson, a former Seaquarium whale trainer. “But it needs to happen. The Dolphin Co. has run it into the ground, unfortunately.”

The County first indicated the park violated its lease agreement in January, citing the U.S Agriculture Department’s concern over the care of four of its animals. 

Problems started mounting at Seaquarium after Lolita, an orca whale, died in August while waiting to be transferred to a sea pen in Washington State. Former trainers, such as Simpson, questioned whether the care of Lolita led to her death of renal failure and other maladies.

The park transferred its Pacific white-sided dolphins and three manatees to other parks and aquariums. The park’s death rattle is something animal activists have sought for decades.

Seaquarium also sued animal activist Phil Demers for posting on social media drone footage of conditions of tanks of animals at the park. Demers on Thursday said he feels the park will now be closed. 

“While it comes too late for Lolita and many other animals who have suffered from the Seaquarium’s neglect, fortunately, going forward, no animal will end up serving a life sentence at this awful place,” he said. 

Albor posted on X, formerly Twitter, he was being prohibited from attending the mayor’s news conference before showing up on the same floor with Seaquarium employees. 

They said problems cited by the USDA have been solved to regulators’ satisfaction and millions of dollars had been pumped into the park – but said such improvements are behind the scenes.

Buildings cited as unsafe by County inspectors are not being used, he said.

Levine-Cava said that even though the county does not own the animals, it remains vigilant of their care until they are transferred – and is ready to care for them, in case the Dolphin Co. abandons them.

“We have to continue to have active eyes on the premises,” she said.

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JOHN PACENTI is a correspondent of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.


Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.

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