Manly Marineland Mermaids

Mermaids resurface one last time to farewell iconic venue

FOUR of the many mermaids that swam the waters of Manly's Oceanarium have surfaced to talk about their time in the tank as part of the farewell to the iconic venue.

The 1964 advertisement read -

Attractive and fearless girl skin-divers. Experienced Snorkel Divers preferred. Must be absolutely unafraid of sharks, stingrays and other marine life. Interesting diving and P.R. position at Marineland, Manly, Phone…

A group of fearless young ladies responded to the advertisement and entered the history books of one of Sydney's most iconic beach's top tourism attraction.

It was officially named Marineland and opened on November 8, 1963. At the time it was the largest oceanarium in the Southern Hemisphere and the third largest in the world. It held over 2000 fish and 150 species of wobbegong, sea turtles and Port Jackson sharks.

It went by many names - Oceanarium, Marineland, Oceanworld, Sea Life - but it remained an iconic building within the famous Sydney beachside suburb of Manly.
It went by many names - Oceanarium, Marineland, Oceanworld, Sea Life - but it remained an iconic building within the famous Sydney beachside suburb of Manly.

Paula Mason was among the first group of young ladies to work at Marineland. She was there from 1969 to 1970.

"When I started at Marineland it was during the Vietnam war and a lot of the visitors were soldiers on R&R so on a weekend," Paula said.

When her friend Kathy was on duty, both would work with Derek the diver after he finished feeding the sharks. "Kathy, who was far more experienced than I was, would dive to the bottom of the 18-foot tank and retrieve a small Port Jackson shark about 12 to 18 inches long and she would get hold of head and tail and bring it to the surface and be photographed.

"I tried to do it once when she wasn't there and failed to hold its poor little head and it was drowning so it turned around and latched onto my arm with its nutcracker jaw. I was highly embarrassed as Derek had to come in and release it from my arm.

"Another time was when I was buddy breathing with Derek and would dive to the bottom and one time forgot to exhale, and of course nearly choked so was almost catapulted to the surface but was right under one of the 90-year- old turtles which weighed about 180 pounds. I hit it and my bikini top broke and almost knocked myself out and had to be rescued once again by Derek the diver.

"My duties also included standing in for the wax museum and ghost train at lunch times on the same level as Marineland so it was very interesting,

"Quite often I would go in with a diver and hand feed the sharks and at feeding time the turtles would chase you around and attack your fins so we kept out pretty much at feeding time.

"I also spent one drizzly autumn morning swimming round a sick shark that had been brought in that morning and that was on Movietone News at the cinema much to my surprise I saw it when I went there on a first date."

Kathy Hill came to work at what then became known as Underwater World in the '80s. She was the only female on the dive staff at the time. "It was a very 'blokey world' but it was a great place to learn and work hands-on with all sorts of maintenance work that was always being done," Kathy said. "On occasions I visited the fish markets in the early mornings to select our bulk fish orders.

Kathy Hill and her seal friends, Salty and Peanuts, at Manly's Sea Life Sanctuary as it was known in the '80s.
Kathy Hill and her seal friends, Salty and Peanuts, at Manly's Sea Life Sanctuary as it was known in the '80s.

"The fun part was the loading of all the crates of fish into the walk-in freezer which was 'cleverly' up a large flight of stairs in the building - funny how the men were often not available then.

"I learnt to use an array of power tools, developed skills such as fibre-glassing, aquarium repair and maintenance, food prep for all the small aquaria display as well as the main oceanarium. And of course, I got to work with four fabulous fur seals and go diving in the oceanarium daily.

"The first time I dived I was rather nervous, but it was the huge grouper fish that actually worried me more than the sharks until I found out that he was just after a chin scratch.

"The seals each had their own personalities - smart, comical and a bit sassy.

"They knew our uniform and could spot us walking through the crowds that gathered just before show-times. It was funny to watch on the days that a school group with similarly coloured uniforms came through, as initially the seals didn't know which way to look.  Eventually they would spot me in the crowd on my way to the stage and would go crazy with their leaping antics in anticipation of feed time. This was great evidence of just how good they were at facial recognition as well.

"My time at Manly certainly taught me much and also set me on the path to a long and happy marine-based career."

Marineland 'mermaid' Sue Sargent (right)
Marineland 'mermaid' Sue Sargent (right) Manly Daily

Sue Sargent followed, working there from 1992 to 1996. "My time at Manly was an important part of my life here in Australia and a significant crossroads in my career," Sue said. "I had achieved a degree in marine biology, but had been working in the advertising industry in London.  Working at Underwater World was my big break into the industry."

Melinda Bacon was there from 1993 to 1996 as an educator and seal trainer. "I loved my time as a diver," Sue said. "It was a time I felt truly alive. I lived to be in the water. It was the place where I was equal."

Manly Sea Life Sanctuary closes its doors for the final time on January 28. 

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