Five-year-old Milt Shedd cast a small shadow as he walked on the Santa Monica Pier next to his father in 1927. Peering over the edge, he watched the larger mackerel pursue the smaller smelt amidst the pilings and was overcome with an insatiable curiosity. That curiosity led him on a lifelong journey in search of answers and solutions which impacted the marine resources he loved.
By the time Milt was eight years old, his Mom would drive him to the pier where he would fish all day. A few years later, he graduated to the barge a few miles offshore near the kelp beds where he landed his first yellowtail. To earn the 25-cent admission, he would sell his catch to the neighbors.
Throughout his school years, his passion for fish was fueled by his frequent fishing trips. He received a degree in banking and finance from UCLA while participating in sports including football and baseball. World War II interrupted his education and he served as an Army officer in the Pacific Theater, earning a Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
From his first walk on the Santa Monica pier, Milt sought ways to enhance his fishing techniques. In 1952, the accepted method of catching striped marlin in Southern California was trolling dead flying fish. When he cleaned his striped marlin catch, he only found mackerel and sardines in their stomachs. In the midst of a fleet of boats one summer, he and his friends decided to troll live bait. Milt and the crew on his boat caught five of the 10 fish reeled in by the entire fleet that day!
Howls of protests reverberated on the marine radio — one individual called him a barbarian for using live bait, but Sport Fishing Magazine credited Milt and his friends with the new, successful method of using live bait.
His next innovation was a bait receiver made with hulahoops, net and an innertube.
Along with fellow graduates of UCLA, Ken Norris, David DeMott, and George Millay, Milt envisioned adding an underwater bar — perhaps with an under-the-sea view — to the Long Beach eatery already operated by George Millay. It soon became obvious that water clarity in the harbor would be an issue. That issue coupled with the difficult engineering involved led the group to abandon the underwater bar idea and focus on starting a marine park in San Diego’s Mission Bay — this would lead to the founding of Sea World.
Conservative as Milt was and in spite of the risk, he firmly believed in the Sea World concept. Along with a desire to help people better understand marine life, Milt and his partners became convinced that a park where marine life could be displayed in pleasant surroundings would be successful.
Milt met with well-known marine biologist, Dr. Carl L. Hubbs to share his vision. The newly-formed Mission Bay Research Foundation, (renamed Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in 1977), would return to the sea some measure of the benefits derived from it. The Institute has since conducted innovative scientific research throughout the world to protect living ocean resources, ocean-based economy and quality of life for over four decades.
Sea World opened March 21, 1964, on 22 acres of leased land on San Diego’s Mission Bay. With only a few dolphins and sea lions — six attractions in all — more than 400,000 guests visited there in the first 12 months. The park proved to be a success! In 1965, they acquired Shamu and became the first theme park to exhibit a killer whale, an attraction that assured the park’s continuity. Today, Sea World has grown to 190 acres, has welcomed more than 100 million visitors and is one of California’s leading tourist attractions.
Not every idea Milt dreamed up was successful. Before the park opened, one exhibit was designed to demonstrate the “fun of fishing.” A large tank with observation windows was stocked with calico bass, yellowtail and grouper, surrounded by bait tanks. The object was to introduce visitors to the bite and the pull of big fish. However, backlashes were common and no one would move on after hooking a fish. Bill Shedd, Milt’s son and head of AFTCO, says it was the most fun “failed experiment” he had ever been involved with.
Milt’s favorite task was collecting live specimens for the park. On a trip to Cabo San Lucas in 1963, he was collecting small specimens while free diving with a slurp gun and larger ones on fishing tackle. One day near the cannery in Cabo Bay, a local lost a large grouper. As it swam by in its attempt to escape, Milt instinctively grabbed the line trailing from its mouth. The fish sounded, dragging Milt down 35 feet, bursting his eardrum. He became so disoriented that he didn’t know which way was up. With a flash of the quick thinking that served him well throughout his life, he blew air bubbles and followed them to the surface.
Until 1968, Sea World was held as a private partnership. Then its stock was offered publicly, enabling the company to continue to grow. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. purchased SeaWorld in 1976 until 1989; then it was sold to Anheuser-Busch Companies.
The second SeaWorld was built in 1970 near Cleveland in Aurora, Ohio. It was soon followed by another in Orlando, Florida in 1973 and the largest park opened in 1988 in San Antonio, Texas.
Milt and his wife Peggie purchased AFTCO, a small operation founded in 1957 in the oceanfront home basement of J. C. Axelson, a big-game fisherman who had become frustrated with the performance of roller guides and roller tips that were available.
When Milt and Peggie purchased the company in 1973, it was manufacturing two styles of roller tips and two styles of roller guides and had moved to a small 2,400 square-foot facility. Shortly after he purchased AFTCO, Milt underwent heart by-pass surgery and his son Bill temporarily filled in. Thirty-six years later, Bill presides as President over the facility that has now grown to 60,000 square feet.
Milt’s love of the sea, coupled with his innovative spirit and eye for engineering, were a perfect match for AFTCO. With Bill’s help, the company has become a respected leader in the fishing industry.
When an opportunity or problem occurred, Milt met it head-on with a sense of urgency. In 1975, while swordfishing with his father, Bill related his frustration at being unable to find a reliable source to produce aluminum butts for fishing rods.
Immediately after returning to the dock, Milt walked to the telephone booth at the top of the pier and called his friend, Jim Easton, the owner of a company which was a world leader in the swaging of aluminum — a process resulting in strong, yet lightweight products. Easton’s swaged aluminum bats are used by baseball players the world over. As luck would have it, Easton had tried to manufacture an aluminum butt through the same swaging process he used to make baseball bats, arrows and a number of other successful products, but had abandoned the rod butt project. He and the Shedds discussed how that effort might be resurrected in partnership with AFTCO. The result was the development of the AFTCO Aluminum Butt and later the Unibutt.
For more than 50 years, AFTCO, with its product innovation and emphasis on quality and dependability, has established itself as a leader in the sportfishing industry. A family-owned company, (Bill’s wife Jill and three of their children are all employees at AFTCO), it is ranked among the world’s most highly regarded saltwater fishing tackle manufacturers with its ever-growing product line used on top sportfishing boats and by fishermen worldwide. Before new products are added, they are field tested by staff members, many of which have been with the business more than 20 years.
The Shedd family, along with the employees of Sea World and AFTCO, devote thousands of hours of leadership and financial contributions to the sportfishing community and various marine resource activities, the result of Milt’s philosophy. He believed that along with the benefits received from his business interests comes the obligation to give back to the ocean and the living things in it.
Milt loved the ocean in a way that few others have. His belief in the importance of giving back was unshakeable. Early on, Sea World’s Board of Directors insisted that such a policy was impractical, but Milt defended his conviction. “The right thing is the best thing for Sea World,” he insisted. Sixteen board members disagreed, but Milt, driven by his belief, prevailed.
Milt’s vision of the importance of scientific study did benefit the park as well as the ocean, as Sea World employees were invited to Washington to assist in the drafting of the original MMA, Marine Mammal Act.
Milt will be remembered by many for the way he lived his life with dedication, passion and humor. He was a devoted husband and father, an avid and accomplished fisherman, racking up a remarkable 3,500 days on the ocean exploring its wonders, while becoming an admired pioneer and spokesman for marine & fishing conservation.
Some of his most notable marine-oriented accomplishments include co-founding of Sea World, founding Hubbs-Sea World Research and assisting in the creation of the UCLA Marine Science Center.
“Dad was an easy man to admire as he was indeed unique and exceptional in so many ways. I have more respect for my Dad than any man I have ever met. Most everyone who knew him well would say the same thing.” – Bill Shedd