Having all that space to move around lets the sea lions give us a more accurate look at what happens in the wild, but the open water presents a lot of challenges that the sea lions and trainers have to overcome.
After growing up at the Aquarium, our sea lions aren’t used to all the distractions out in the ocean, like passing boats, different animals and strange objects. The sea lions are also asked to do things that they’ve never done before, like dive deep down into the water and stay there in the dark, out of sight from the trainers.
At the Open Water Project, it is extremely important that the trainers and the sea lions form a bond. They really need to trust each other when they're out in the open ocean.
So the trainers working on the project spend a lot of their time hanging out with the sea lions. During these “socials”, the sea lions can choose how they interact with the trainers in and around their pen. Sometimes the sea lions want to play with their toys, and sometimes they just want to cuddle – they’ll lie on the trainer’s lap and put their head on his or her chest. There’s no fish involved, so the sea lions aren’t bonding with the trainers just to get food.
Vance Mercer, the senior marine mammal trainer on the project, says that he spends so much time with the sea lions that he knows them better than he knows some of his friends!
This stellar project is the only one of its kind in the world. There’s no training manual and no precedence for what Vance and the Open Water team are doing – they’re truly working at the frontier of animal training.
We’re not the only people who think that the Open Water Project is cool. Vance and the rest of the team won first prize from the International Marine Animal Trainers Association for the work that they’re doing. Congratulations, everyone!