Easton and the thousands of zoo members who came to see the sea lions weren't the only ones enjoying themselves.
"The sea lions absolutely love the exhibit," said Steve Bircher, curator of mammals and carnivores at the zoo. Sea Lion Landing includes a walk-through, transparent tunnel, providing unobstructed, underwater views of the animals. Inspired by the rugged Pacific Northwest Coast, the exhibit also includes the Lichtenstein Sea Lion Arena, home to the sea lion show. "It's so enjoyable to me to see the animals enjoy the entire exhibit. They are very curious of people in the tunnel," Bircher said.
The tunnel, a 35-foot underwater viewing area, was Carlie Aubuchon's favorite part of the exhibit.
"I wish I could spend more time in there," said the St. Charles mom. "Before this, my favorite part of the zoo was the hippo [exhibit] because you could see underwater. It's so up close and personal."
Aubuchon's 11-month-old son, Roman, enjoyed standing on the rock wall and watching the sea lions next to and above him. Currently, zoo staff are encouraging visitors to limit their time in the tunnel due to its newness and popularity, however, they hope people will be able to linger longer and interact with the animals more in the future.
The 1.5-acre, $18 million habitat and arena is home to 11 California sea lions. The exhibit will also be home to one harbor seal, the only surviving seal of four that were transferred from Sea World San Antonio. The female seal is currently quarantined and under the watchful eye of zoo officials. California sea lions and harbor seals co-exist in nature, Bircher said, and he's confident she'll do well in the new exhibit.
Sea Lion Sound includes a new show arena with an 811-seat amphitheater, a large stage, a 40,000-gallon pool, a rock bridge extending into the audience and a high-diving platform and slide. The animals will be swimming, "walking," balancing and splashing during the daily shows. Shows are at 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. daily with an additional show at 5 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Tickets for nonmembers are $4, and children 2 and under are free. Feedings and keeper chats happen each day, weather permitting, at 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Feedings and keeper chats are free.
Sea Lion Sound was funded by the zoo's Living Promise Campaign. The fundraising campaign being used to build new animal exhibits, enhance the visitor experience, improve the zoo's infrastruction and strengthen its endowment. With the completion of Sea Lion Sound, the zoo is now focusing on its next set of exhibits, Bircher said. Ground has been broken on new exhibits in the River's Edge for the Andean bears, Malayan sun bears and African painted dog. Construction is expected to take about a year, he said.
Top: One-year-old Easton giggles as the sea lions swim by his viewing area.
Middle: The viewing tunnel provides unobstructed views of the sea lions swimming around and above guests.
Bottom: Feedings occur at Sea Lion Landing three times a day.
Photos by Jill Bushery.