The Life Aquatic of a West Texan

A product of land-locked West Texas, Mark McHugh, 49, grew up as an unlikely prospect to one day get a master’s degree in marine biology and go on to work at SeaWorld Orlando as a whale trainer. At SeaWorld McHugh met and married Diane Godwin, whose grandparents started Gatorland in 1948. McHugh took over the reins at Gatorland in 1996, and he has been a presence in the Orlando-area tourism industry ever since. He is the former chairman of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau’s board of directors. He and Diane have two daughters, Chelsea and Taylor, and live in Orlando.


I went to school at Southwest Texas State University and on my first summer break I got a job with Phillips

Mark McHugh
Mark McHugh

Petroleum in an oilfield town called Rankin. I lived in a little shack for the summer, working at a kind of job the VPs and directors had gotten their kids because it was supposed to be a cush summer job.

When I got there some tough, old oil hands were there and one of ’em said, “Who got you this job?” And I said, “My granddaddy got me this job.” “Yeah? Who’s he?” And I said, “Cleo Ivy.” Well, everyone pulled off their caps and told me stories about him. It hit me like a ton of bricks. He was important as I was growing up. He grew up in the Depression and took his family wherever he could to find work and raised four kids, all good Christians. He was real hard worker and when he said he’d do something he flat out did it. He and grandma did an awesome job and were a real influence on me.

Where I grew up in Midland, out in West Texas, there ain’t a whole lot to do, so we spent a lot of time chasing tumbleweeds, throwing cow chips and chasing goats. Really. I was three years younger than my brother Mike, so I always wanted to hang out with him and his friends. Part of that meant that anytime there was something they were scared to do it was “Where’s Mark?”

One time we found an old slide. Mike ties a rope to the slide and to this ol’ minibike we had. His friends are wondering who’s going to ride it so I get volunteered. He takes off with me on the slide, but then it gets caught on a stump and throws me off. I split my chin wide open. We’re at home
hiding in the bathroom and Mike’s trying to clean up the blood and whispering “Shhhhh… Aw, it’s not that bad.” My mom hears this and comes in and sees this huge gash and has to take me to emergency room so they can sew me up.

When I was 14 one of my buddies and me got a job loading hay bales onto a truck for $3 an hour. Since we were pretty strong football players we really got into it and the guy was so impressed he hired us to come over the next day to muck his stalls. We knew how to load hay but we didn’t know how to muck stalls. He caught us just sitting on hay bales drinking grape Nehis. Got fired the first day.

I got my license and for a while I cruised around in my mom’s maroon AMC Pacer until my stepdad gave me a dark green ’73 Pontiac Catalina, something he wouldn’t worry about if I happened to run over a mailbox. In Midland, our hangout was Love’s Drive-In, and all the kids would cruise in to get that cherry Coke and wait for a miniature train car to run inside and bring your food back to you. High school football is huge in Texas and my buddies and me all played and we thought we were tough, so one night we headed over to take on our rivals over in Odessa. We pulled into their Love’s Drive-In—their hangout—and, well, we’re pretty stupid. We jump out right in the middle of all of them and start going at it and we ended up in the Odessa jail. They let us go, but that’s what you did in West Texas. You drove around and got in fights.

I had the potential to be a good student, but I wasn’t. In my senior year I was taking astronomy but my counselor told me that in order to graduate I had to drop out of astronomy and take tempera painting. It drove my mother crazy, but, bless her heart, she prayed hard and long enough until it worked and I ended up going to Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. The Hill Country of Texas is just beautiful, with all these lakes and rivers. I started scuba diving and fell in love with it. I figured if I majored in marine biology they couldn’t send me back to West Texas, so I started turning my attention more toward academics.

Mark McHugh
Mark McHugh, right, with his grandfather Cleo Ivy in 1988

I spent part of my last summer as an undergrad at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute and got admitted to their graduate program to study dolphins. I was living in a little house in Port Aransas, a long-haired grad student in a 13-foot aluminum boat with a little 12-horsepower motor driving up and down shipping channels, studying the feeding habits and population numbers of bottlenose dolphins. I was absolutely a scientist. I was developing hypotheses and trying to prove or disprove those hypotheses by following strict scientific procedures and doing statistical analyses of my data.

During my last semester I came to Orlando on vacation with friends and went to SeaWorld. I caught a trainer after a show and asked how I could train killer whales. I had no clue. He told me I had to take a swim test and part of that was having me dive 35 feet down to the bottom of the front pool at the stadium. I said, “Whatever you tell me to do, I’ll do it because I want that job.” A few days later I was back for the test and I dove in and swam to the bottom… and lost my shorts. Some female trainers took my shorts and kept them and someone had to hand me a towel so I could get out of the pool. I thought there ain’t no way I’m getting this job—but I did. I was back in Texas when they called me. That was December ’84 and the first week of January I loaded up the U-Haul and headed out. One thing they didn’t let me do for a while was make announcements. I had such a thick Texas accent that they told me they wouldn’t put me back on the mic until I stopped saying, “Here he comes! Shamu, the keeeler wail!” No lie. They made me practice saying “killer whale.”

I don’t know if getting my master’s or getting the job at SeaWorld came from confidence or a fear of failure. I had a deep fear of failure of letting down my parents or grandparents. It drives me today because a lot of people depend on me to make the right decisions. But whatever motivates you, have that dream and never quit trying. When I told people in West Texas I wanted to go to SeaWorld and train killer whales. they said, “What?!” But you can’t quit trying. You gotta keep trying. I had a master’s degree and was scrubbing fish buckets for $5.10 and hour, so you know my parents were proud. It was a dream. I feel like I have a whole lot more success ahead of me, and that means bringing up everybody around me so I can watch their success.

Categories: People