Sea World is currently running a great deal: the Fun Pass (good for admission for the rest of the year with no blackout dates) costs the same as daily admission. I decided to take advantage of this deal. Even better, my friend Sarah (from the running group) works at Sea World as an animal trainer and offered to give any of us a backstage tour.
I arrived at the park and bought my Fun Pass, and then made my way to the Sea Lion and Otter stadium, and caught the last half of a show. After wandering around a bit, Sarah got in touch just as another show started and said she'd meet me after the show and bring me back. So I watched another one. The plot involves a shipwreck on an island, a stolen treasure map, and eventual rescue, but it really is all about watching sea lions, sea otters, and walruses do tricks. :)
Once backstage, Sarah showed me the refrigerated fish room, where all the meals are prepared. It looks like a normal industrial kitchen, except instead of plates there are metal cans with colored rings, which are packed with ice and fish for the animal performers. Every morning the trainers prepare all the food needed for the day's shows and put them on trays and carts for ready access.
The animal section is divided into three areas: sea otters, sea lions, and walruses. Each area has a swinging gate so it can be partitioned off from the other areas, allowing the trainers to bring out the animals individually if needed. Apparently some don't play well with the others. I can see this, the poor sea otters are tiny compared to the walruses!
Sea World currently has 9 sea otters, but two are "retired" from performing. They each have a roommate, and have a swimming area, ramp, and various toys to play with. There is a misting system for keeping them cool in the summer too.
Sarah then brought me over to the walrus area, where Slowpoke and Bruiser share a much larger space. They are 3000 pound animals so they need the larger room. Slowpoke understands the word "kiss" and makes a very realistic smooching sound when she hears that. So I held out my hand and Slowpoke kissed me twice. :) When Sarah said "water" she turned around and waddled back to the pool.
Finally Sarah repartitioned the area and brought out Jay, a Sea Lion who behaves well around strangers. Jay let me pet him behind the head, and shake his hand (flipper), and was extra excited when I threw him a few fish to eat.
I also saw Squeak, a very active one year old Sea Lion. He likes to jump in and out of the pool and slide up to the door to stare at you for a few seconds before doing it again. I'll upload the movie and link to it - it is quite funny.
I found out a few things about the show that were interesting. First, all the performers are actually animal trainers - there is not a separate crew of entertainers. Sarah recently switched to Sea Lions/Otters from Dolphins so she is also learning the lines to play the Pirate. Second, and this seems obvious in retrospect, they switch off animals constantly backstage - the sea lion that greets the crowd, the one that dives off the ship, the one that slides down the ramp, are probably all different ones. All the animals have their own names, but in the show they use stage names and the trainers can switch off their mic if they need to call the animal by the name the animal recognizes more.
This was a really cool glimpse at the work behind a show! Sarah had to get back to work since there was one more early evening show, so I wandered off to ride the Kraken, Sea World's roller coaster. This was a fantastic coaster - loops, horizontal rolls, below-ground dips including a dark area, plus no floor in the car so you can look down to the ground. Oh yeah!! I'll make use of my Fun Pass this year.