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Gulf World Marine Park offers close encounters with many critters

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PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. - For a notoriously slow critter, the African spurred tortoise was moving pretty fast. After all, it was feeding time at Gulf World Marine Park and the tortoise had his eye on the dinner dish.

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“Did you know,” a small boy standing next to me struck up a conversation, “that these tortoises don’t need to drink any water?”

“How fascinating,” I responded. “Where did you learn that?”

“Over there,” Matthew Campbell, 7, of Memphis, answered, gesturing to a sign by the tortoise enclosure. “They get all the water they need from their food.”

Sue enough, the informative sign shared that interesting tidbit. Not only is Gulf World Marine Park a fun place to visit, it is also educational.

“We come here every year on vacation,” Matthew said. “My family rents a place and we stay here for a week.”

What does he like best about Panama City Beach? “I like swimming and playing on the beach and I like coming here,” he said.

On my first visit to Gulf World Marine Park, l could see why so many families were choosing to spend time here. The park has multiple indoor and outdoor habitats – Penguin Habitat, Shark & Sea Turtle Habitat, Reptile Habitat, Tortoise Habitat, Sea Lion Habitat, Alligator Habitat and Flamingo Habitat.

In addition, there is a stingray petting pool, bird exhibit and coral reef aquarium. Plus the park offers multiple feeding demonstrations and shows throughout the day. One of the most popular is the bottlenose dolphin show. It is amazing what these dolphins and their trainers do.

Originally established in 1969, Gulf World has steadily grown in size and animal capacity. At six acres, the park is big enough to provide comfortable homes for its animals, yet small enough for visitors to get up close and personal with park residents.

As we settled in to watch the dolphins twist, turn and soar high, Matthew found me to share another bit of important information. “Don’t sit too close to the front,” he said, eyeing my camera. “You are going to get wet from the dolphin splashes if you sit here.”

Duly noted. I moved back a few rows and Matthew was definitely right. Children seated in front of me delighted in the sprays of water stirred up by the dolphins.

Gulf World is also an important emergency facility when animals need rescuing from severe weather, oil spills and other problems. In January, Gulf World helped about 50 endangered sea turtles that had been stranded due to cold temperature in shallow bay waters. Put in intensive care, the turtles were rehabilitated for return to their natural environment.

Gulf World Marine Park is open year round, rain or shine. For a special treat, sign up for programs such as Dolphin Trainer for a Day, Dolphin Day Camp, or the Animals Meet & Greet where visitors can get up close with dolphins and sea lions. Gulf World also has Shark Attack Grill and a gift shop.

For more information: Contact Gulf World Marine Park at (850) 234-5271, www.gulfworldmarinepark.com

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