Sea Lion Comes To Boca Grande
Tales of Island Life: November 2023
In March 1971, a sea lion named Tinkerbell swam from a Marine Mammal Motivational Institute research boat working in the Dry Tortugas to Gasparilla Island. Tinkerbell then proceeded to mount the stairs from the beach and finally flopped down to rest next to the pool at the beachfront home of Mrs. Rutherford Stuyvesant Pierrepont, née Nathalie de Castro. As this story progresses, it includes Arthur Houghton and Nina Rodale Horstman who later married Arthur Houghton and became a strong community leader in Boca Grande.
Nathalie was the great granddaughter of William Cullen Bryant, the poet and editor whose most famous poem is “Thanatopsis.” Mrs. Pierrepont married Rutherford Stuyvesant Pierrepont, a descendant of a historic New York family that included John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1929, Mrs. Pierrepont was chairman of the New Jersey division of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform. She also headed the building of the Convalescent House in West Palm Beach during the 1930’s. The facility became St. Mary’s Hospital and Mrs. Pierrepont was its board chairman for many years. Mrs. Pierrepont died in 1973.
Tinkerbell was one of several sea lions rescued by Nina Horstman Houghton according to her son Jeff Horstman. An article in the “Chesapeake Bay Magazine” tells Jeff’s story. He “was nine years old in 1968 living on a New Jersey beach, when his mother, Nina, adopted an abandoned seal pup. Coaxing it to drink mackerel puree from a baby bottle, they raised it to become a 200-pound adult, teaching it obedience skills and tricks…soon they adopted a second seal to keep it company,”
After the family had moved to the research ship in the Florida Keys, Jeff reports that “he and his mother were returning to Florida when they stopped off at South of the Border to see a marine mammal exhibit advertised along the I-95 interstate. An injured, mistreated sea lion was on display. Nina angrily confronted the owners, then bought it on the spot, carrying the animal in her station wagon back to the ship.” Soon the sea lion was named Tinkerbell.
Tinkerbell was a wanderer and she swam as far as Boca Grande at least twice. The first time she ended up in Mrs. Pierrepont’s pool. It is surmised that she was looking for the same pool when she was spotted again in May 1971. By that time, Mrs. Pierrepont had returned north and the stairs from the beach to her property had been put away until the next season.
Mrs. Pierrepont’s neighbor was Arthur Houghton. Houghton was a descendant of the founder of Corning Glass Works, had been President of Steuben Glass, curator of rare books at the Library of Congress, Chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as the New York Philharmonic. He was also a relative and Boca Grande host to Katharine Houghton Hepburn.
Some of the stories of Tinkerbell’s visit to Mrs. Pierrepont indicate that she arrived during a get-together which Houghton attended, and he became involved in finding where the sea lion was from. Fortunately, Tinkerbell had an identifying clipped flipper from an accident in her pre-Horstman days and an ID collar. Soon the research ship received a phone call from Boca Grande.
When Nina came to retrieve the sea lion, local lore says she met Arthur. According to a 1972 New York Times article, Houghton became a strong supporter of the Sea Mammal Motivational Institute. Jeff Horstman says that Arthur fell in love with Nina who, by then, was separated from Jeff’s father. “Waging a successful courtship, Houghton sent his private plane to pick up Nina and her menagerie – Jeff and his three siblings, a parrot, several dogs, and five marine mammals – and fly them to his 2,000-acre plantation that sprawled for miles along the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.” Arthur and Nina married in 1972 and lived in Boca Grande for many years.
Nina Houghton’s involvement in Boca Grande organizations was numerous and included the Friends of the Boca Grande Community Center, Royal Palm Players, the Crowninshield Community House, the Boca Grande Child Care Center, the Gasparilla Island Maritime Museum and the creation of the Houghton Room as a reference library. And none of this would have happened except for a wandering sea lion named Tinkerbell.