COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Just a year after its grand opening, Riverbanks Zoo keepers have built a strong bond with the six marine mammals that call Sea Lion Landing home.
Never before has a camera been out on exhibit with the animals and keepers to catch their training up-close, but in our latest Beyond the Banks, you'll get to witness that bond firsthand.
"There's never a dull moment here with these animals," said John Davis, Curator of Mammals at Riverbanks Zoo.
The 270,000-gallon pool is home to sea lions PJ (4), Maverick and Ranger (5), Annette (15), and Baja, and harbor seal Gambit (11).
While our cameras were rolling, keepers asked Baja to smile, to which he grinned ear-to-ear before being rewarded with a fish. His joy is shared by keepers at Riverbanks who know the presence of Sea Lion Landing is serving a greater purpose.
"These animals serve ambassadors for their wild counterparts," said Davis. "The marine debris and the amount of plastic in our oceans today - we want to bring awareness to that. "With the number of sea lions on the California coast, there's always a time when they get entangled in some of the marine debris or some of the fishing nets and they get injured."
In fact, three of the 6 marine mammals at Riverbanks are rescues. Keepers say Annette, the only female on exhibit, was rescued six times on the California coast.
"She's an older animal so it's so interesting that she would [be] stranded herself later in life, but it could be that she had an injury and couldn't feed herself," said Andrea Mueller, a mammal manager at the zoo.
But there's no shortage of food at Riverbanks. The guys and gal go through 110 pounds of fish a day, much of that during training.
"One of the important things of training is to make sure that we can examine their body check in their mouths and make sure everything looks good in there," Mueller said.
Keepers add training is also about building relationship and trust, something King got to experience with the standout harbor seal Gambit. From his check-up to tricks like waving, blowing bubbles and making noises, Gambit was all in.
Keepers say working with each one is all about respecting their space and letting them do what they want to do, and that often means showing off their skills reminding everyone why they are fan favorites at Riverbanks.
If you're headed to the zoo soon and want to pick out Gambit, besides his spots, you'll notice harbor seals don't have large flippers like sea lions. Seals have to inchworm their way across the land. Seals also don't have external ears like sea lions.