Now before you dismiss this as the ramblings of a six year old that never grew up, hear me out. On our anniversary recently, Ben had to work. It was a last minute cancellation of a day off, and we had a great time at breakfast and dinner nonetheless. But to make it up to me, Ben planned a special surprise.
Last September, we embarked on a two week Californian adventure, kicking off in San Francisco before travelling out to the National Parks, down to the coast and then back up the Pacific Highway. It’s on my To Do List to blog about, as we had such a wonderful time I would love to share it with you all. And one of my particular highlights was seeing the inhabitants of Pier 39: a colony of sea lions. I was enchanted by them from the moment I saw them, and we must have visited them at least three times. I just loved watching them all cuddled up sunbathing on their floating pallets, barking at each other when someone jumped up out of the sea and clambered all over their dozing friends. With this in mind, when Ben found out that Woburn Safari Park, up in Bedfordshire, offer a sea lion experience package, it was a done deal! Needless to say, I was very excited when I found out.
Woburn was opened in 1970, making it one of the UK’s oldest wildlife parks. There are over 80 species of wild animals roaming (almost) free across the 300 acre grounds which make up part of the Woburn estate, and it is internationally recognised for its conservation of endangered wildlife species. They offer several VIP experiences for two alongside a general tour of the park, and so it was that at 10:30 that morning, we found ourselves escorted down to Sea Lion Cove. Our keeper, Nicki, greeted us and told us all about the incumbent sea lions. There are five altogether, four females and one male. They have a saltwater tank, as it’s better for their skin, and what they would be used to in the wild. There’s also a wide rocky ledge around the edge of the outdoor pool enclosure, where the sea lions can get in and out and where the keepers come out to feed them. Luckily the sea lions were in a playful and energetic mood that morning, and it wasn’t long before we saw their dark, lithe shapes break free of the waves and leap across the water. They turned and twisted and raced each other the length of their tank, enchanting Ben and I right from the start.
First off, the keepers caught the two girls we were going to meet and popped them in the pens at the back while they fed the others. Then they reappeared with pouches of gleaming silver fish, and called the remaining three to their posts. The sea lions all have set stands to use as a marker to stand on for feeding. The adults we saw were Monica and Sprat, mothers to Leonie and Keira, and Max, the only male. Poor old Max seemed to be the butt of many a joke in the sea lion world. He is much smaller and lighter than the average male sea lion, weighing in at just 120lb rather than the usual 200lb a male can reach. We decided that poor Max had a bit of Small Man Syndrome, as he liked to declare his authority by barking. The keepers told us that they had installed cameras in the pens, and saw that, at 3am one morning, Max decided to wake up all the girls by barking, herding them out of his pen, and then going back to sleep!
Having watched these guys get their breakfast (they were properly deft at catching the fish – I never saw them miss!), we then returned to the Sea Lion Cove theatre. This is where the sea lions come out to perform for their adoring public. It was also where we were going to meet our girls – Leonie and Keira – and have a go at some of the tricks they’ve been taught!
I was first up, and assigned to Leonie. Rather like Max, Leonie and Monica will be getting complexes of their own. Nicki told us that Sprat and Keira have been labelled as the slim, attractive supermodel types, and that poor old Monica and Leonie, by comparison, were the fat and stupid ones. But I could hardly agree with that when I saw Leonie. As she lolloped into the theatre in her weird sea liony way, I thought she was nothing short of gorgeous. She jumped up onto her stand, and I was mere feet away from a Californian sea lion!
The sea lions have been taught over a hundred commands, or ‘behaviours’, by the keepers, and just with simple hand gestures they will perform a whole range of tasks. Taking my lead from Nicki, I was first taught to wave at Leonie, and she waved her flipper back. Next, I was allowed to stroke her. When wet, sea lions look they’re rubber-skinned, but when they’re dry they actually have a layer of fur over their bodies. However, fresh from a watery dip Leonie was still damp, so her toughened, muscular skin felt quite like a dolphin’s. I was then given a kiss from a sea lion! All I had to do was point to my cheek and Leonie would lean over and plant her whiskery face against my cheek. It was utterly surreal but wonderful. We did that one several times, and it made me laugh like a delighted child every time.
And finally, how to jump into the water, then leap out and touch a ball suspended from the air with her nose before splashing back down into the water! (Sadly, I can’t get the video to upload on here. If you know how, please ping me a message!)
I did not, however, master the Shakira hip wiggle that signals for them to wag their hind flippers. Beyonce I ain’t…
Sea lions are undoubtedly highly intelligent animals, more so than I ever gave them credit for. In fact Nicki described them as being “like a dog in a wetsuit”, which is just the best analogy! Once you see it you can’t unsee it. It also just made me love them even more (you know how much I love dogs…) Also, their flippers are unbelievably strong. In fact their entire bodies, although they look fat and blubbery, are solid muscle from powering themselves through the water.
It was Ben’s turn next.
After we’d finished playing, we were given a tour of the less glamorous backstage. We gawped at the sheer amount of fish assigned to Max per day – about 10lbs! They also have a bucket full of toothbrushes, and each sea lion has their own, colour-coded. Apparently they have teeth a bit like a dog, so you have to be careful when examining their teeth!
We were also told to expect/hope for sea lion babies, as they are hoping that Max will breed with Keira or Sprat this year. To guard against fat and stupid genes, Monica and Leonie have been fitted with a contraceptive implant each (poor girls!). As result, the sea lions were in training for ultrasound scans should they become pregnant, using a mock up dummy machine in the meantime!
I was absolutely buzzing at the end of our session. Sea lions are friendly, intelligent, gorgeous and funny. I had the biggest smile on my face all day – I was literally bouncing as we left their enclosure at the end of the experience! We reluctantly parted from the sea lions and set off in Ben’s car to take a tour of the rest of the park.
Woburn is relatively free and open. The animals which are unlikely to pose a danger to humans – zebras, wildebeest, etc, are allowed to wander at will. But other who may pose a danger (to us or the wildebeest…), such as lions, wolves and bears, were kept behind fencing in a separate free ranging area. You can drive the whole length of the park yourself, but you are warned in no uncertain terms not to get out of your car…
It tended to be the case that, wherever there was a build up of cars, there was something worth seeing. And on this Sunday morning we were very lucky indeed. This is the point where photos do more than words, so here are our highlights…
I felt a bit like a member of the paparazzi, leaning this way and that with the ultra-zoom lens on Ben’s camera, thew two of us papping anything that moved. We were throughly overexcited the whole way round, pointing out animal after animal to each other in tones of utter reverence.
Also, interesting fact: Top Gear filmed part of an episode here when they built their own convertible car. One of the challenges was to drive it through Woburn. However, in reality you are not allowed to drive any soft top car through the dangerous animals enclosure, so I wouldn’t bring one with you!
After a successful tour of the park, we returned to the Foot Safari area for lunch and a wander round the smaller or water-borne animal areas. However, the weather had other ideas, and the heavens opened. We got soaked, and animals retreated, so the best we saw of that were a pair of (unusually cute) cuddling porcupines.
The sea lion afternoon show definitely made up for the substandard weather conditions. Nicki and one of the other keepers, Terri, came out with Monia and Sprat, and ran through the behaviours we’d been working on with them that day. They worked very much in sync, and they had clearly been operating on slow time when we practised that morning to accommodate for the slow humans!
It was the best way to round off our day, and we returned to the cars with smiles even the rain couldn’t dampen. On returning to Ben’s we spent the rest of our evening eating roast gammon and mashed potato, going through our photos and watching Take Me Out. It was the perfect end to a genuinely perfect day. I’m so grateful to the lovely staff at Woburn for making us feel welcome, the sea lions for being so friendly and playful, and of course to Ben for thinking of and booking the day. If you love animals and have a car, you have to get yourself to Woburn. Just watch out that you don’t bring a monkey home on the roof rack!