Franco, a 12-year-old sea lion who lived at Coral World Marine Park on St. Thomas for the last nine years, died this week, apparently from an injury sustained during a scuffle with another sea lion.
Surveillance camera tapes coupled with the initial necropsy report concur, said Coral World general curator Lee Kellar in a phone interview Saturday. But an intensive investigation with lab test of tissue samples is underway, “to make sure our gross findings are correct,” he said.
Franco, an approximately 12-year-old male, was discovered in his enclosure by the sea lion training staff on Friday morning.
“Sea lions spend much of their evening hours jostling for sleeping positions. Like teenage siblings, good-hearted pushing and shoving can sometimes lead to accidents.” Kellar said, adding “Our four, male sea lions have grown up together and shared space for all of their lives, first in Thailand and then at Coral World for the past nine years with no significant conflict, so this freak accident was a total shock to us.”
“This is an awful day for all of us who cared so deeply for Franco, but is especially heartbreaking for the team of trainers who spent their days working with him and knew firsthand how extraordinary he was," said general manager Trudie Prior in a statement issued Saturday by the marine park. “The entire Coral World family is mourning his death,” she said.
Franco and the other three Coral World sea lions arrived at Coral World in 2007. Rescued as newborns from a government-sanctioned cull in Uruguay, the pups were relocated to a facility in Koh Samui, Thailand, before moving to their Coral World home at the age of three.
“He was my good friend,” said Scott Hjerling, who leads Coral World’s sea lion training team and who reported that members of the animal-care staff took the loss very hard. “To us, he was not just an extraordinary animal. He was also a member of our close family. There are a lot of people here who loved him very much and are taking his loss particularly hard.”
Franco captivated Coral World visitors, both tourist and local, as an inspirational animal ambassador, Hjerling said.
Male sea lions live for 12-18 years in the wild, according to Kellar, quite a bit longer in human care, he said.
Franco received regular wellness checkups and routine observations from his trainers, the statement said. . Franco appeared well and engaged in all his training sessions during the day on Thursday with his usual enthusiasm.
“It’s what they call in the military a magic B-B,” Kellar said, choking back tears. “It was a freak accident.”
Reflecting on the joy and educational messages Franco brought to thousands of guests during his life, Prior said, “While this is a very sad day for us, Franco leaves a legacy of helping people learn about sea lions, their role in the marine ecosystem, and the effect of human behavior on that ecosystem.”