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We were marine mammal keepers for a day!

It was just before six-thirty in the morning when my mom, my thirteen-year-old brother, and I approached the employee entrance at SeaWorld Orlando. We were not SeaWorld employees, but we were about to get a glimpse of what it is like to work at SeaWorld. We had booked a Marine Mammal Keeper Experience, a day-long behind-the-scenes experience where we would interact with beluga whales, manatees, dolphins, and sea lions.

Lauren, our guide, escorted us to a waiting golf cart, the chariot that would take us zooming through the employees-only areas of the park.

One of our first stops was a large tank where manatees slowly swam about. Lauren helped us toss full heads of lettuce, the manatees’ breakfast, into the water.
Feeding and getting up close with the adult manatees during our Marine Mammal Keeper Experience at SeaWorld
In a nearby pool was a very small baby manatee. Lauren explained that the baby was recently rescued. One of the keepers brought a large bottle filled with formula and capped with a big rubber nipple. She gently positioned the baby and offered him the nipple. He took it eagerly and soon the formula was completely gone.
Watching a baby manatee be fed its bottle during our Marine Mammal Keeper Experience at SeaWorld
Lauren told us that it was time to put on wetsuits, so we hopped in the golf cart and sped off.

Once we had changed into our bathing suits and pulled on wetsuits, Lauren brought us to the dolphin lagoon where another keeper led us onto a slightly submerged platform. We knelt at the edge, and some of the dolphins approached us. The keeper told us to splash the dolphins. We did, and they splashed us right back. He also taught us how to ask the dolphins to vocalize and to splash with their tails. We gave them fish to reward these behaviors. Finally, we posed for a picture with one of the dolphins and then walked back to dry land.
Getting up close feeding, playing, and interacting with dolphins during our Marine Mammal Keeper Experience at SeaWorld
Next, Lauren took us to visit mother dolphins and their babies in the Dolphin Nursery pool. Park guests watched as we walked past the barricades and stepped right up to the edge of the pool. Even though we were offering no food rewards, dolphins eagerly approached us. Lauren showed me how to gently massage the muscles down their backs as they swam by. I tried this on one of the dolphins, and she turned around and came back for more.

We slipped backstage again and sped off in our golf cart to the Wild Arctic exhibit. We met some of the keepers and then stepped “on-stage” in the beluga exhibit. I’m sure park goers were watching us, but all of my attention was focused on the white-gray belugas. We knelt into the shallow, icy water. The keepers let us touch the belugas, signal a few different behaviors, and get a beluga kiss.
Getting kissed by a beluga whale during our Marine Mammal Keeper Experience at SeaWorld
Our next interaction took place outside, in the warm Florida sunshine. In a backstage area, we watched seals swim around their tanks, happily catching fish tossed to them by their keepers. Then we were led inside an enclosure where we were introduced to some of the seals. The keepers cued the seals to demonstrate some of their behaviors. Then they let us stroke the seals' wet, furry coats. It felt a lot like petting a wet dog.
Watching a seal training session during our Marine Mammal Keeper Experience at SeaWorld
And then it was time for lunch. We peeled off our wetsuits, showered, and put on the official SeaWorld keeper t-shirts that were included with our program.

After a quick lunch, we traveled to a backstage area of the sea lion exhibit. We were given heavy metal buckets full of fish and were led into the park. We plopped down our buckets at the edge of the sea lion exhibit (Pacific Point Preserve) where we tossed fish after fish to the barking sea lions.

Once we were backstage again, a large male adult sea lion was brought out to meet us. The keeper asked him to lie down, and we stroked his fur. He felt a lot like the seals. Then, we stood side-by-side with the keeper, and we cued some of his behaviors. As a final goodbye, we took turns asking him to present a flipper which he offered and we gently shook.
Getting up close with and petting a sea lion during our Marine Mammal Keeper Experience at SeaWorld
Our final keeper experience was meeting an adult male walrus. The huge animal waddled up to the edge of the enclosure that separated us. On cue, he presented his back flipper through an opening and allowed us to stroke it. This is a behavior that the animals are taught to allow medical staff to safely obtain any necessary blood samples, without needing to sedate or restrain the animal. Our walrus interaction ended with each of us receiving a, slightly wet, walrus kiss.

Our day as marine mammal keepers had come to an end. We hopped into the golf cart and took one last ride. Lauren dropped us off in a backstage area, and we entered the park though an employee entrance.

We spent the rest of the day enjoying SeaWorld, but now, when we visited the exhibits, they stirred up memories of the moments we’d spent meeting the wonderful animals and marine mammal keepers at SeaWorld.

I did this in 2010 in Orlando, Florida, USA.

Jen (California, USA)

See more of Jen's animal adventures here.