Morro Bay Aquarium owners face controversy over facility

Dean Tyler, center, opened the Morro Bay Aquarium in 1960. His wife, Bertha, says she “married into the aquarium.” Their grandson, John Alcorn, plans to take over the operation of the aquarium when the Tylers retire.
Dean Tyler, center, opened the Morro Bay Aquarium in 1960. His wife, Bertha, says she “married into the aquarium.” Their grandson, John Alcorn, plans to take over the operation of the aquarium when the Tylers retire. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect title for Eric Endersby. He is director of the city of Morro Bay’s Harbor Department.

The Morro Bay Aquarium has been a city landmark for decades, drawing about 200,000 visitors a year to the Embarcadero to see seals, eels and other sea life and support owners Dean and Bertha Tyler in their efforts to preserve and rehabilitate marine life.

But as the aquarium’s popularity has grown, so has its share of critics who claimed that even though it’s in compliance with U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, its facilities are substandard.

Now the couple — Dean, 94, and Bertha, 89 — are applying to the city to renew the family’s lease on the property, which is set to expire in 2018. And they find themselves in the middle of controversy once again.

In their renewal request, the Tyler family didn’t propose any renovations. But to sway the city, they’ll have to propose something more substantial, according to Eric Endersby, director of the Morro Bay Harbor Department.

“I hope to see the Tylers come up with something,” he said. “I think that the aquarium is a unique attraction, and we’d love to see it move into the future.”

The City Council will meet June 25 to decide whether to open the lease to the public or to hear a new proposition from the Tylers.

Long established on Embarcadero

Dean Tyler opened the Morro Bay Aquarium in 1960 and populated it with sea lions, otters and marine animals he either rescued or captured himself. He also worked on a fishing vessel.

Bertha joined him in its operation in the late 1960s after they met at her Chat & Chew restaurant across the street from the aquarium.

“I was a widow at the time when I had the restaurant. Dean would often come in to eat, and that’s when I grabbed him,” Bertha recalled.

“I married into the aquarium.”

By 1973, Bertha had sold her restaurant and begun working in the aquarium, helping her husband rehabilitate marine animals. At the time, the couple had no formal training or certification with marine wildlife, nor was any required.

Through the years, Bertha said, the aquarium has released 90 sea lions and other animals back into the wild.

Protests begin in the 1990s

Animal rights organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals began protesting in the 1990s that the aquarium’s facilities were substandard. And in the early 1990s the U.S. Department of Agriculture repeatedly warned the Tylers that their seal tanks weren’t deep enough.

The tanks have since been deepened, according to John Alcorn, the Tylers’ grandson who works at the aquarium in many capacities and plans to take over its operation when the couple retires. Dean Tyler also said he’s made improvements over the years to better accommodate the seals, such as adding resting platforms. Other than these changes, Alcorn said, the rest of the aquarium has seen little in the way of structural changes.

In recent weeks a few picketers have stationed themselves outside the aquarium, handing out leaflets decrying the conditions inside. Critics say the tanks that house the seals are too small and are enclosed in cages, which cause many of the seals to die prematurely.

The family says it harbors little animosity toward them, and over the years has even met some protesters personally. The family feels that some protesters have been misled by the media, Bertha Tyler said.

The family also has its share of supporters. At a May 2 Harbor Advisory Board hearing on the lease renewal, there was more support for renewing the aquarium’s lease than there were critics.

Most attending the meeting called the aquarium a beloved institution and praised the owners for decades of hard work educating the public about marine life.

Operations continue

Until the aquarium’s fate is decided, the family continues to operate the facility as it has for decades.

Tickets cost $2, the same fee charged when the aquarium opened in 1960; children under 12 are free. In addition, it costs 50 cents for fish to feed the seals.

Last year the aquarium had approximately 200,000 visitors including kids under 12, said Bertha Tyler. The aquarium functions as a nonprofit organization. In the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2012, it reported $193,543 in revenue and $191,068 in expenses, leaving it with $2,475.

The Tylers, who receive income from rental properties, don’t rely solely on the income generated by the aquarium. In the early years the couple was not paid for their work, Alcorn said. “They did it out of love for the animals.’’

And though Tyler family members who work in the aquarium are now paid, many in the family worked there for years without receiving pay, Alcorn said.

“This place has never been run to generate revenue for the owners, but as a place for the community to enjoy,” he added.