Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Blue World filming at the Mystic Aquarium!

It all started a little over a year ago when Cameraman Pierre and I were filming in the Galapagos. We got some amazing footage of sea lions playing, hunting and even barking underwater into my camera. We thought a segment about sea lions would be interesting, but the footage from the Galapagos wasn't enough. It was neat, but didn't tell a story. We thought maybe we should visit a big aquarium that trains sea lions to learn more about how smart they are and how they can be trained. But where? Fate had plans for us. At an educational ocean conference a few months later, we bumped into some biologists from the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut, only 2 hours from my house! We asked if we could visit and learn a little about sea lions. They checked with the PR department for us. "Sure, come on down!" was the response.

So yesterday, after months of trying to get several schedules to line up (mine, Cameraman Tim, and several of the trainers at the aquarium) it all finally worked out. We got up early and drove down to Mystic. Soon we were met by Erin Merz from the public relations department. She had tirelessly put the whole thing together for us. Soon our motley film crew was introduced to four lovely sea lion trainers who took several hours of their time to walk us through a day in the life of working with sea lions.

They started with food prep. I spent half an hour washing, inspecting, and sorting fish for the sea lions to eat. They are fed six times a day so food prep is a large part of maintaining their 6 California sea lions.

Next I donned some big rubber boots over my sneakers and went out to meet the sea lions. Over the course of several hours I learned how they train the animals with positive reinforcement and even got the chance to learn and use a few hand signals myself. (The more experienced animals in the aquarium know over 100 hand signals! That's smart!) I also learned that all their sea lions are either rehabilitated animals that were stranded and which cannot be released to the wild, or animals that were born and raised in captivity. They are like swimming puppy dogs--eager to play and interact with each other and their trainers. They seem to love to show off and goof around. And they eat a lot of fish in the process.

Of course all that fish eventually comes out the other end! So I got to experience the not-so-glamorous part of being a sea lion trainer--cleaning sea lion poop. Ick.

Later in the day we filmed one of their daily sea lion shows with a big crowd watching. It was interesting to see how the trainers run a show so flawlessly with the sea lions doing all their tricks and flips all cued by subtle hand signals that the audience doesn't even notice. But I had an appreciation for how long it takes to teach the sea lions all those signals. Even though they are very smart, 100 hand signals is a lot! I'm not sure how long it would take me to learn that many!

This will be an amazing segment in season 3, combining what I learned about sea lions at the Mystic aquarium with what I observed in the wild. We can't wait to get started editing this segment!

We would like to extend our gracious thanks to the Mystic Aquarium, and in particular Erin Merz, and sea lion trainers Deborah Pazzaglia, Jen Reo, Kristen Patti, and Julie Formanski for a great day!