SeaWorld Orlando has launched a new event this month called Wild Days that is aimed at spreading the company's message of conservation while giving visitors a look at what goes on behind the scenes when team members care for the animals.
At the first Wild Day, my daughter and I were invited to take a tour to see where many of the park's rescue and rehabilitation efforts take place. Located behind closed gates near the Key West dolphin area of the park is the hub of much of SeaWorld's animal-care efforts. Once inside, my daughter recognized the "Sea Rescue" team's truck and speedboat, which can be seen on the weekly television show. Interestingly, the propeller on the boat Dundee is located in the center of the craft to protect the manatees they are rescuing or releasing.
We arrived at the shallow turtle pools, where we were introduced to Little Hercules and Cobbler. These two sea turtles are blind and not able to be released into the wild, so SeaWorld has been charged with their care. While doing so, SeaWorld has been able to broaden its knowledge about turtles' eyesight, and the turtles have also served as blood donors for other turtles' surgeries, a staff educator told our group. Their neighbor, Pokey, is a rare Kemp's Ridley sea turtle who suffers from severe arthritis.
Next, we moved to the manatee pools -- two are located in the "backstage" area and one is actually in the tank visitors can peer into at the Turtle Trek attraction. John Peterson, supervisor of animal care and a SeaWorld employee for more than 20 years, talked about the rescue process.
"We're committed to the rescue, rehabilitation and return of our animals -- as quickly as we can," he said. Peterson, who can be seen on "Sea Rescue," explained that it is state and federal agencies, not rehabilitation facilities like SeaWorld, that determine if and when a rescued animal will be released.
"We will release wherever they tell us -- east coast, west coast, north, south, cold water, warm water," he said. "Some people wonder why you would release in cold water. We'll release [manatees] in the warm springs when the head count is high from all the manatees gathered there. Then, instead of being by themselves, they're with all these other animals and they will move back out and hopefully, if all works right like it normally does for us, we won't have to see them again."
When animals leave SeaWorld's care, they are tagged for identification and follow-up care as needed, Peterson said. That system -- plus a knowledgable ranger at Blue Springs -- enabled SeaWorld to learn about one of its very successful rescues. A baby manatee that was hand-fed and required round-the-clock care at SeaWorld was found to have assimilated to life in the wild and even produced an offspring.
SeaWorld guests can take the Behind-The-Scenes Tour and see these two areas, plus touch a shark, explore a hidden polar bear den and interact with a penguin. The normal price for the tour is $29 for adults and $9 for children ages 3 to 9, but during the month of January, it is offered as a buy-one, get-one-free experience.
As we were leaving the rehabilitation area of the park, we all had to laugh when a group of flamingos came strutting through the parking lot with two trainers in tow. The birds were on their way out for a stroll through the park. We followed the flamingos out into the park and made our way to the Dolphin Theater to see the "Blue Horizons" show. This is a must-do for our family when we visit SeaWorld.
If you arrive a few minutes before the show, you will get to see four pilot whales and their trainers work on some basic commands in the pool. Rescued from strandings, these four are the first pilot whales at the Orlando park, though San Diego does have some in its care.
"When we working with them in quarantine, we were still hoping they'd be released, so we weren't doing much training," a trainer told us. "We weren't even feeding [the pilot whales] above the water because, out in their natural environment, they'd need to eat below it. We weren't preparing them for a show."
Once the federal government determined they couldn't be released, SeaWorld trainers started positive reinforcement training with the pilot whales.
"They're very smart in their own way," she said. "They're not as quick as some of the dolphins. By their natural biology they don't move as quickly, so that sometimes takes us a little longer because they just can't move the way a dolphin moves. But they're picking up on the basics of what we do very quickly."
False killer whales were used in Blue Horizons until the last one died, and the trainer said they hope to use the pilot whales in the show, like they do in San Diego. Trainer talks, such as this one, are open to the public and part of guests' regular admission during Wild Days.
Later in the day, my family learned about California Sea Lions before the "Clyde & Seamore Take Pirate Island" show. We watched as a trainer asked Zoe to open her mouth wide to participate in her own healthcare. And we heard about Big John and Little Chris, who came to SeaWorld from Oregon when the federal government determined it would have to euthanize 90 sea lions a year from a river near the Bonneville Dam.
One of the most famous animal trainers was the keynote speaker during the first Wild Days weekend, Jack Hanna. "Jungle Jack," who entertained audiences with his stories and displays of rare animals, did not shy away from talking about the reality of being an animal trainer -- that sometimes things go wrong and the trainers can be injured or die. The result, he said, is that SeaWorld has taken an unfair beating on its reputation.
"I'll never forget the first time I came here with my girls, who were only 5 and 7 at that time. I got to see the most magnificent thing I'd ever seen in the world and that was the killer whales and the other animals that were here, the dolphins. I'll never forget that, just like the 350 to 400 million other people who visit SeaWorld parks," Hanna said.
"Dawn [Brancheau] who lost her life here was a friend of mine. I did the memorial service here at SeaWorld. Her family, her parents, are here today. … They came today to visit SeaWorld because they love SeaWorld. Dawn loved Seaworld. Dawn's life was SeaWorld. The whales were her life,” he said as the audience applauded in memory of Brancheau's devotion to the animals with which she worked at SeaWorld.
SeaWorld's Wild Days continue on Jan. 18-19 and Jan. 25-26. Next weekend features the stars of "Sea Rescue," who will talk about the stories that have been featured on the show, including those of turtles, manatees, flamingos, pilot whales and dolphins. Plus, the rescue team will answer questions from guests. The last weekend focuses on penguins with talks from SeaWorld Animal Ambassador Julie Scardina and penguin activities for the whole family in the Antarctica section of the park. Check the daily times guide for Wild Days events.
DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of SeaWorld during its Wild Days event. My opinions are my own, and this did not influence my story.
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