May 1, 2007 — They bark, they love to have their ears scratched, they roll over and play dead, and they jump high up in the air — no mean feat when you weigh 350 pounds.
Franco, Remo, Romeo and Omar are the island's newest marine guests at St. Thomas' Coral World, and possibly the most comical, gentle and friendly ever. The four sea lions arrived on St. Thomas about 10 days ago, after an 86-hour trip from Koh Samui, Thailand.
Coral World general manager Trudie Prior and special projects director Jeff Foster decided the marine quartet was ready to begin introductions to other folks this week. A sylphlike 350 pounds now, the four-year-olds will grow to 700 pounds when mature.
Foster has spent the last four months in Thailand with the animals, observing their behavior and running health tests on them.
"In Thailand, at the International Sea Lion Search and Rescue, they swam with about 4,000 visitors over the past two years," Foster said Tuesday. "They are safe and gentle with people. There's no record of them being aggressive, and they love to play."
And play they did Tuesday, jumping high in the air, just because they felt like it, and also answering to commands from trainers Karen McRea Tiffany Blake and Pongthep Suwanchatri. McRea has just gotten to know the critters in the last week, but they were literally eating out of her hand, doing anything she asked. "It helps if you have a handful of fish," McRea laughed.
They eat about 15 pounds of herring, capelin and mackerel daily, she said.
The mammals made their way up the stairs in their eight-foot-deep crystal blue holding pool, using flippers and bellies, to splay themselves before their audience, and gaze beguilingly into the audience's eyes. They are natural-born hams.
Franco, the largest of the four, was getting the most attention — standing on his head, dancing, doing the obligatory ball-balancing trick and stopping from time to time to give Remo a kiss.
Prior and Foster point out that though sea lion's antics are fun, they serve a serious purpose. "Now that the animals don't have to fend for themselves to eat, they need things to do. They are very intelligent, and they would get soon bored. They must be kept busy."
Prior said, "Most people in the Virgin Islands have never seen a sea lion up close. This will be an opportunity for people to bond with them, to play with them. It's all part of learning about how live with other animals on this planet."
Lions' Staff Is Filled With Pride
Prior has surrounded herself with a stellar marine staff. Foster, who joined the staff about a year and a half ago, was awarded the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Environmental Hero Award in 2006 for his volunteer work rescuing human and animal victims of Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Southeast Asia.
He joins Peter Noah, vice president of operations for Coral World, who worked on the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation project, as did Foster, who was one of Keiko's trainers.
Dr. Robert Stevens, who was hired as a consultant on the project, has extensive experience, according to Prior, in marine mammal work. He has worked with dolphins and sea lions at attractions in Key Largo, Fla., for more than 20 years.
Along with the four well-traveled mammals, Foster was accompanied on his 86-hour journey from Thailand — first on a truck to Bangkok, with stops in Amsterdam and Miami — by Dr. Ted Hammond, marine mammal veterinarian and founder of International Sea Lion Search and Rescue.
Hammond rescued the four from their native Uruguay two years ago and brought them to Thailand. He selected them from a group of 40 pups culled by the Uruguay government. They were under threat there, as local fishermen argued that they were destroying their nets and stealing their catch. He trained them there in search and rescue work.
For Foster, his calling came naturally. He has been working with marine mammals and other creatures for most of his life. His father, James Foster, is a Woodland Park Zoo veterinarian, who took over the work of Dian Fossey, caring for the gorillas of Rwanda after Fossey's murder.
Jeff Foster, who is modest about his achievements, has been called the "Whale Wrangler" by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for his work in training Keiko, the internationally famous orca of "Free Willy" fame.
Foster is relishing the unique opportunity he will have with the sea lions here. "We will be able to study baseline behavior," he said. "Very little is known about them. When you see them come out of the pool and lay still, that's very important. We need them to be calm so we can check different behaviors. We will study their diet, their lung capacity. There's nowhere in the world like this environment. We can learn so much from them."
He said they will be studying with Dr. Paul Jopsis of UVI's marine biology department.
Changes at Coral World
In the past year," Prior said, "we have been focusing on making the park more interactive. We've seen that our guests want to be more than spectators. They want to interact with the animals."
The park first launched a shark encounter last year, to get guests closer to marine life, and last
December the marine park opened a Lorikeet aviary garden.
Prior is hoping these ventures "will spark interest in the planet we live on." She wants children, especially, to swim with the sea lions. "When children get close to animals they develop feelings for them."
Prior faces a hurdle now with getting a Coastal Zone Management permit to move the sea lions from their pool and into the sea.
The park withdrew its application last July, in the face of concerns that the animals' feces would affect water quality in the area. (See "Coral World to Resubmit CZM Permit for Sea Lions Enclosure.")
Prior said Tuesday that she is hopeful that the new staff at the Planning and Natural Resources Department "might be more open minded." She said Coral World has been in discussions with the staff.
The pool where the sea lions now reside was built as a hospital for marine animals found stranded in the area. The facility has rescued numerous turtles and other sea creatures.
Prior said in next few weeks, the sea lions will be ready to receive visitors to play and swim with them. She said the cost will be in the neighborhood of $100, comparable to dolphin swims in Tortola and other marine parks.
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