By Susan and Simon Veness
January may be a quiet month in Orlando, but over at our favourite marine-life park things are still in high gear thanks to the fascinating and informative Wild Days at SeaWorld.
Over the course of three weekends—January 11 through 26—a day at SeaWorld offers even more value for money, with three special Wild Days events, all included in park admission. Want more? Trainer Talks occur several times a day, and fun Education Stations are set up in select locations. And no one wants to miss the Penguin Block Party that serves as a fun finale to Wild Days.
It all started with Jack Hannah Weekend, featuring several daily talks with the world-renowned wildlife expert, “Jungle Jack”. Jack’s rapid-fire style of speaking and the introduction of a string of animal ambassadors kept the audience riveted last weekend. He began his talk with a little background, saying, “In 1973 I came to this park [….]I was only 22 years old. I didn’t know what whales were. I got to see the most magnificent thing I’ve ever seen in the world, and that was a killer whale. I’ll never forget that…so that’s what this is all about.”
He went on to say, “Whether you have a fish, a dog, a gerbil, a turtle, a horse, a pig, whatever it might be, these animals are living creatures that teach several things for young people. It teaches responsibility, it teaches the most important work we have here today, and that’s love. If you can’t love something, you can’t save something. And that’s what you’re going to learn her today at SeaWorld. Be educated and love these creatures, because that’s what’s going to save them.”
He then introduced each animal ambassador, and while the snow leopard, the warthog, the cheetah, and the bald eagle were audience favourites, it was the camels, who couldn’t resist munching on the potted plants set up on the stage, that really stole the show.
Before the show we were taken backstage to an area that houses rescued marine animals. So far in 2014 there have been two sea turtle rescues with one of them already released back into the wild. 2010 was their busiest year, with 500 sea turtles rescued due to cold shock and the Gulf oil spill.
During our visit several manatees were being cared for, including four orphans the care-givers have named Leonard, Squiggy, Laverne, and Carmine. John Peterson, nicknamed J.P., told us about the work SeaWorld does with rescued manatees. “With babies, we watch them for 24 hours to be sure they really are orphaned, and if they are we bring them in. They get an assessment, they’re stabilised, then we work on their nutrition. They’re bottle fed every three hours, 24 hours a day.
“When they start to eat lettuce, they’re weaned. When they sustain their weight we put them with other manatees, or in an exhibit. Once they reach a certain weight we discuss their return to the wild. Then, we track them in the wild for a year. If they’re doing well, we un-tag them.” U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Florida Fish and Wildlife are involved, but it’s the Federal Government who make the decision as to whether or not an animal can be returned to the wild, or must be given life-long care.
Next we attended a showing of Blue Horizons, and as an educational add-on to Wild Days, the show began with a Trainer Talk. Our trainer was Kelly, who told us about the four pilot whales that were rescued by SeaWorld and spent a few minutes in the pool before the show, getting a feel for the place and checking out the audience. The biggest pilot whale was Fredericka.
“Freddy was rescued in May 2011 from a mass stranding with 23 other pilots whales, off the Florida Keys. She was just 2 years old, and because all of the adults had died she did not learn essential survival skills. Our primary goal is rescue, rehabilitate, and release, but Freddy was deemed to be un-releasable, and we welcomed her with open arms.”
Kelly went on to say, “The three other pilot whales are Piper, Ace, and Eva, who were stranded in September 2012, at the age of 6 months. All of you are a big part of their story of rescue and rehabilitation, and you could see how much they enjoyed being out here and seeing the audience. We work very hard to develop a relationship, and SeaWorld has never had pilot whales, so were learning so much about them.”
After the show we were joined by Sarah, the supervisor at the Blue Horizons Stadium. She expanded on Kelly’s talk, saying, “We’re really excited they came to us. Some organisations felt they should have been left on the beach, but we felt differently. Our goal is 100% release, but circumstances sometimes mean they are left in our care. The Federal Government makes that decision, and they also chose us as the best place. We provide 24 hour care, no matter where they go. We hope it’s their natural environment. We always want what’s best for them.”
Because the pilot whales were so young when they arrived, Sarah said they had special needs. “They were not eating fish yet, but because of our experience we knew what sort of milk they’d need. We were able to provide it, which and now the younger pilot whales are 700 pounds, and Freddy is 1200 pounds.”
Will audiences see more of SeaWorld’s new family members? “If they enjoy it, they’ll be worked into the show in the storm sequence,” Sarah told us. “They seem to enjoy it, as you could see when they came up to the glass. When they got here we did no training or even feeding above water, because we hoped they might be released.” When they were deemed un-releasable, enrichment began. Sarah said, “They pick up on the training quickly. We probably go slower with them than they want to go!”
Next weekend is Sea Rescue Weekend, where guests can meet the rescue and rehabilitation team featured on the television show, Sea Rescue, and hear their stories. January 25-26 brings Penguin Lovers’ Weekend with SeaWorld Animal Ambassador Julie Scardina. The focus is on penguins (of course!), and Julie will be there to share her stories of working with her charming charges.
You’ve seen the shows, you’ve done the rides, and each January you have the chance to go a bit deeper; to explore the real reason SeaWorld exists, beyond the enjoyment and lifelong memories guests make, and that’s the conservation efforts that have earned SeaWorld parks their strong standing with the SPCA and zoological organisations around the world.
We have to end this blog with our Favourite Quote of the Week, this time from a youngster watching the trainers doing enrichment with the dolphins at an underwater viewing area. As the dolphins came up to the glass to see the objects the trainers were playing with, the child watched them with wide eyes, then shouted, “This is the BEST day of my life!”
And that’s what it’s all about. As Jungle Jack said, if you love something, you’re inspired to save it.
Next week: Shamu Up Close!