Sea World

It’s here, it’s here!! Vacation. I can’t believe it. I haven’t had a week-long vacation in years, and boy am I due.

I’m off to a little place a like to call “nowhere”. This is gonna be a local vacation, but it might as well be in the Amazon, because as of now the pager and cellphone are off, the ringers on all the phones are off, the computer is off, and I’m not contacting anyone in the outside world.

The summer of George started today with a visit to Sea World in San Diego. As much as I dislike theme parks, this one is not bad–especially today. The usual summer crowds were nowhere to be found.

The one thing I couldn’t control was the weather, and man was it hot. I slathered SPF 45 sunscreen all over myself and still got burned.

Sea World has a new Florida manatee exhibit. I’d never seen one of these things up close before. They are adorable and ever so gentle. Unfortunately, manatees are also slow moving creatures which live near the surface. And as a result many of them are injured or killed by propeller blades from passing boats. I saw the deep cuts made into the back of one rescued manatee by a prop. It wasn’t pretty. There are only 3,000 of them left on the planet.

But the best part was the “hands on” stuff. Sea World has become much more interactive over the past few years. For example, I spent about 20 minutes petting bat rays. I loved rays–they were so friendly and graceful. The bay ray pool was large enough that they could have avoided the edges (and therefore, any human contact) if they’d wanted to, but they were happy to swim around the perimeter and let dozens of hands pet, rub, scratch, and grab at them. I was struck by how aviary they are–as if at any instant they might zoom out of the water and take flight with those massive wing-like bodies. Under the water the appear somewhat fragile, moving with great economy in perpetual motion through the clear, wavy fluid–but once you lay a hand on them, you realize that you probably couldn’t stop them even if you tried. Their bodies are cartilage surrounded by masses of sheer muscle. If they want to flap their wings, you can grab at them all day, they’ll just keep on movin’. I’m sure Sea World would have considered it to be in poor taste if I’d attempted to smuggle a 40 lb. bat ray out of the park.

One of the most intelligent creatures in the ocean is the dolphin, so I parted with about $10 in exchange for a handful of anchovies to feed them. You don’t have to feed them to pet ’em–in theory. In reality though, they’re remarkably elusive for an animal with such a people-centric reputation. As long as you have food, you’re their best friend. Once you run out of merchandise, though, they’ve never heard of you.

Come to think of it, that is very human behavior.

One of the dolphins (we named him Grumpy) was hugely obese. I mean, this was the only dolphin I’ve ever seen that had wrinkles and rolls of fat all over his body! True to his name, he wasn’t even friendly while you were feeding him. The World According to Grumpy was this: feed me, but don’t touch me.

The last big interactive exhibit was the seal/sea lion pool. They were a blast! The harbor seals would actually wave at you, turn in circles, and sing for food. I love them–in fact, whenever I’m in San Francisco (which has been every February for the past several years, but that’s a different story) I always make time to visit Pier 39. A rookery of 70 or 80 California sea lions has commandeered part of the dock there. Humans don’t interact with them, but they are plenty entertaining–pushing each other off the docks, playing King of the Hill, and posing for the crowd (actually they’re “thermoregulating” their body temperature, but I’d rather put a human spin on it).

Toward the end of the day I was meandering around the park and though to myself that it would be a dream come true to swim with the dolphins. Just then I saw a sign that said “DOLPHIN INTERACTION PROGRAM — Swim with the dolphins!”

What are the odds?

They have a program that allows normal people to swim with the dolphins and learn about them from their individual trainer. It’s expensive, but I thought it was such a great opportunity! How often in life do you get the chance to live out a dream like that? There were no more sessions available that day, but we got a special dispensation from The Pope of Sea World to come back to the park another day and do it.


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