Coral World Sea Lion Team Update
2017 has been an especially interesting year at Coral World, and this brief end-of-year update will attempt to summarize all of the excitement (both good and bad) that our sea lion family has endured over the past year.
Our animal training team is thriving! Coral World was excited to welcome two new members to our sea lion training staff this year, Erin Opitz and Jessica Shifflett. Both have done a great job working with our animals and adapting to life on St. Thomas (which is not always an easy transition). Despite the challenging circumstances we’ve faced this year,
our whole team has kept a positive attitude and really rallied around each other. If you are looking for a great team-building activity, I highly recommend a horrible natural disaster.
Our sea lions are doing fantastic. Omar, Remo, and Romulo are all healthy and happy. The big news is that our sea lion family has grown this year! In March we welcomed two new additions, Fred and Rose. Fred is a beast, topping out at around 750# this year. But don’t let his size fool you, he’s a teddy bear. He gets along with all the other boys and really is about as handsome a guy as you could ever find. Rosie is a firecracker. She adorable and has a huge personality. It’s been a very interesting year for both them and us, as our training style is a little different from what they were used to prior to their arrival. But it’s been a wonderful learning experience for both the trainers and sea lions, and they’re both doing extremely well!
The big elephant in the room, obviously, was our exciting hurricane season this year. Irma, the largest hurricane in Atlantic history, directly hit us on September 7th (you may have seen something about it on the news). Hurricanes are always a concern in the Caribbean, and we have an extensive hurricane preparation plan in place at Coral World. We were as ready as possible for hurricane season, but nobody could have been prepared for this type of wrath-of-God storm. Our animals were all packed away nice and tight, with all of the sea lions voluntarily moved into the Marine Gardens building (the strongest building we have available for them). Our sea lions are trained year-long to live together and be comfortable inside the building, as evacuation is always a possibility. The training and transport went perfectly. The storm was pretty terrifying, and the damage to both the island and (to a degree) the park was fairly catastrophic. The Marine Gardens building did suffer significant damage, but luckily the sea lions were all safe and sound. The aviary was completely destroyed, the Blue Water Terrace lost its roof, flying debris destroyed the entire back deck of the sea lion main pool, clogged both sea pools, and caved in the holding pool roof. I won’t go into details, but the days following the storm were long and grueling, clearing debris, rescuing animals, and making repairs.
Two weeks after Irma, a second category 5 storm hit us. Maria passed slightly south, but close enough to give us category 5 conditions. These were the two strongest storms St. Thomas has seen since 1995, and they hit exactly 14 days apart. No longer able to house sea lions in the Marine Gardens, my carefully planned and perfectly trained sea lion evacuation plan was now useless. So, we pulled out the emergency transport kennels (basically giant dog crates) from storage. We had a full 48 hours to train all of our animals to voluntarily enter the kennels (no small feat). But credit to trainers and animals, on the day of the storm the sea lions were all in their kennels and spent the second storm in the Dolphin Education Center with us and, honestly, it wasn’t too bad. After all, Maria was only a “regular” category 5 hurricane.
Life on the island hasn’t been the same since, and four months later a majority of the island is still without power. In the aftermath of the storms things were kind of scary. We constantly worried over basic resources and safety and had very little information about recovery efforts. Long story short – things are better and continue to improve. We’re not back to normal and won’t be for a long time. But things aren’t scary any more.
So that’s where we are today. Coral World is rebuilding and is slowly opening bit by bit. Cruise ships are beginning to visit the island again and Coral World will be re-opening on a pretty consistent basis in January. We’ve worked very hard to keep the sea lions happy and stimulated during our recovery, and they seem thrilled to be meeting visiting guests again! We’re looking forward to the improvements that are being planned regarding the sea lions’ home. Since we’re rebuilding, we plan to rebuild better than ever. We’ve been through a lot and are stronger as a result.
We appreciate all the support we’ve had over the years (both before the storms and since) from all of our friends and fans. It’s amazing the bond people make with these beautiful animals after they visit us, and we love hearing from all the people who love them as much as we do. We’re excited about our future and hope to see you here with us soon!
Assistant Curator of Marine Mammals and Birds