When people find out that I used to be a marine mammal trainer at Sea World of San Diego before getting into the insurance business, they often ask questions like “What was it like?”, “Did you make a lot of money?”, “How did you get into that?”, “Were you ever scared?”, and “You left THAT to get into the insurance business?”.
Working as a marine mammal trainer at Sea World was a great job which I really loved but no, I was not paid a lot of money. And, it’s not as glamorous as many people think. It’s actually a lot of hard work, both physically and mentally. Let me tell you about a typical day that I had in the summer of 1977 while working at the Seal and Otter Show.
Our day started at 8:00 AM unless you wanted to stop at the employee lounge for breakfast in which case you came in earlier. But you still needed to be in the show area by 8:00. Our first show of the day was at 10:00 AM but there was a full two hours of work for two people before we could even think about the show.
The first thing we did was to make sure we received our full “breakout” which is our daily complement of fish and horse meat to feed the California sea lions, Malaysian Otters, and Humboldt penguins. Then, one of the trainers would clean the otter enclosures and separate the first show sea lion team into a separate holding pen while the other trainer cut fish and prepared and gave each animal his/her daily vitamin (we aren’t the only ones who take a Flintstones vitamin each morning).
Ken as "The Ringmaster" and Canuck (California Sea Lion)
The next thing we typically did was while one trainer was hosing down the sea lion and elephant seal pens, the other would conduct training sessions with one of the newer sea lions, otters, or even the giant elephant seal before the first show. The Seal and Otter Show usually had 9 shows daily with the possibility of one or two “optional” shows thrown in due to having more guests in the park than anticipated or projected (though we never really had the “option” of not doing the extra shows). Cleaning the area was ongoing and you tried to squeeze in training sessions whenever and wherever you could during the summer season. The bulk of the actual training was done during the winter months when there were far less shows on a daily basis.
During the time frame I am talking about, we had two sea lion show teams (4 sea lions), two sea lions that were in various stages of training, a mature sea lion named Nitty who performed at the end of each show as “Freddie, the fast flipper”, four Humboldt penguins, six Malaysian otters, and a giant elephant seal. We had many more animals in the area during the winter but many of these were flown to the Sea World of Ohio park for their summer season (the Aurora, Ohio park was only open during the summer due to weather conditions in the Midwest).
In July of 1977, the wife of our head show trainer, Dave Self, went into labor with their first child. Dave was wearing an emergency beeper and when it went off; Dave sprinted out of there and suddenly, only I and a rookie trainer named Julie Scardina was left to work the area for the next two weeks without a day off. **Julie is now the Sea World Ambassador and you may remember seeing her on one of her many appearances on The Today Show or The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (Julie just recently celebrated her 60th appearance on The Tonight Show).
Julie on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno"
Our show had a circus theme called the “Dingling Brothers Circus” and with Dave gone, I was the only one there to be the “ringmaster” which was the main trainer in the show and Julie was designated to do all of the “backups” as Boo Boo the Clown. The backup trainer ran around back stage frantically delivering and receiving the animals as they entered and exited the stage during various portions of the show.
After one particular show, I decided to conduct a quick training session with Henry, one of our sea lions in training. Without getting out of my ringmaster costume, I took Henry onstage and conducted the session. At first, I was worried that the incoming crowd would spook Henry but he wasn’t fazed at all. I then walked Henry back towards his holding pen and made an absolutely dumb rookie mistake, a real goof. While holding a herring in my right hand (the mistake), I looked up to see which pen I should put Henry into. Henry jumped up and grabbed the herring out of my hand, his canine tooth driving through the finger nail on my ring finger and when I reacted by pulling my hand away, the nail was torn off and the tip of my finger was shredded. I became faint and leaned against the wall with blood pouring out onto the deck and yelled for Julie. I told her to call Steve Williams from the Shamu Show to come be the backup trainer (he knew the Boo Boo part) and Julie was to perform as the ringmaster for the first time while I went to the nurse to get cleaned up and bandaged. Her first reaction was that she had only done this in training sessions but then I reminded her that other than me, she was the only one left who could do the part.
Ken as "Boo Boo" and Frodo (Malaysian Otter)
I walked across the park, still in costume, holding my hand in a blood soaked towel, and Nurse Dorothy, a wonderful angel of mercy took care of me and my hand. I returned to the show area and asked Steve how Julie did as the ringmaster. He gave her a glowing review so right then and there; I announced that we were sharing the ringmaster duties from then on.
Another glamorous moment occurred one morning before the first show when we decided that pen #1 needed a good scrubbing. We moved Nitty, the fully mature sea lion who usually occupied pen one into another pen and drained his pool. Needless to say, the walls of his pool had a lot of poop that needed to be removed. Since I am much taller than Julie, I was the logical choice to jump down into the empty pool, praying that I landed without slipping. On this particular day, I landed short and my feet went out from under me. I slipped and then slid up and then down the wall which resulted in my being fully covered from my chest to my feet in poop. While being totally grossed out and holding my breath as much as possible, I brushed down the walls while Julie sprayed them with a hose. The pen was spotless but that was not the case with me. So naturally, I climbed out of the pen and chased Julie all over the show area asking her for a hug!
We usually worked five days a week and ten hours per day at Seal and Otter since our last show of the day didn’t start until 7:00 PM. But, between 4:30 and 7:00 we had time to clean the area, clean the food buckets, separate the sea lion show team for the last show from the other sea lions, and prepare the food buckets for the last show. And, we had time to decompress by walking around the park eating the free soft serve ice cream cones that the wonderful girls working at the Foremost Gardens would give to us (a little begging was usually involved).
Even though we worked long, hard days at the Seal and Otter Show, it was great. I was out of school for the summer and worked with the greatest people you can imagine. It was a great learning experience for a young trainer and the animals were fantastic though they did manage to challenge us from time to time.
I still talk with Julie on occasion and play softball with her husband, Don, who worked in the Entertainment Department. My good friend Dave passed away a few years back but I still keep in contact with his wife, Cindy, who used to be the Sea World receptionist (and her dad was a security guard at the park).
Ken May has been serving North County since 1982 offering quality Carlsbad insurance products with strong carriers. He is currently the president of the American Agents Alliance of California, the local chairperson of the North San Diego County Chapter of the Alliance, and a member of the MetLife producer council. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.