Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, September 28, 2001

On the "Behind the Scenes" tour at at Sea Life Park,
a baby red-footed booby waits for its dinner.

Sea Life Park is
spreading its message

Trainers are helping the public
learn about the ocean around them

By Nancy Arcayna

As island businesses struggle to cope with the sudden downturn in visitor traffic in the aftermath of the East Coast terrorist strikes, this is a good time for kama'aina to show their support for local attractions while discovering what's new behind the scenes.

For instance, preserving the environment has become a hot topic these days, and it's not often talked about, but beyond spinning dolphins and leaping whales, Sea Life Park has an active role in the preservation and protection of endangered species. They have four pens housing injured birds and are also caring for a melon-headed whale.

On a recent tour, 12 participants waited eagerly to get an up-close look at these amazing creatures. Dolphins and whales swam under our hands for a rubdown. Everyone seemed excited to connect with the animals.

"Be careful not to touch the blowhole," cautioned trainer Shanda Coltman as the group observed Maka, a 30-year-old dolphin who always needs to be the center of attention.

"He just loves human interaction," Coltman said. "He has beautiful eyes, so that is how he got his name. We like to name the dolphins based on their physical characteristics."

A family of tourists from Japan laughed and cheered as they were splashed by another dolphin, Keola, who waved at them with his tail.

"Through our efforts we hope to educate many visitors from around the world about the conservation of our fragile marine creatures and environment," said G. Paka Nishimura, mammal curator of the park.

Kayo Kanagawa leads a group through a tour.

"My husband saw a program on the Travel Channel saying that this is one of the best behind-the-scenes tours that you can go on in the United States," said Karen McBrien. "We used to live in Hawaii Kai but are now in Fresno, Calif. My daughter is in the second grade and is studying Hawaii and learning about Sea Life Park. They really provide a hands-on approach with explanations on the tour. Several of my daughter's friends from her class are also coming to visit."

Last year, when the shearwaters returned to Hawaii, the park cared for nearly 600 birds, according to Bonnie Call. "The highest number was 1,200, which was about six years ago."

"Shearwaters are attracted to light, so they often get into trouble at night. They either run into buildings or car headlights," said Nishimura, who worked at Sea World for several years before coming out here.

"Our intent is to make sure our conservation messages are delivered to the public. They are subtle messages but very important ones. Everyone takes home a little information. Hopefully, people will be more aware and not out there throwing garbage in the ocean or mistreating animals," Nishimura said.

Behind the Scenes Tour

When: At noon and 2 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays; and 10:30 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays (each tour is 50 minutes long)

Where: Sea Life Park

Cost: $9.95 (regularly $19.95) includes photograph with a dolphin, but not park admission (discounted for kama'aina to $6 for adults and $4.50 for ages 4 to 12 through Oct. 31)

Call: 259-2512

The opportunity to see a melon-headed whale (named Keauhou) is a rare treat for visitors. "As far as we know, she is the only one in a marine life park," said tour guide Kayo Kanagawa. "She was found completely alone on the Kona Coast of Hawaii, but she should have been with her mom. She was rescued and brought here when she was a baby.

"We had to feed her about 17 times a day, and someone needed to be in the water with her for 24 hours a day for several months," she added.

Senior trainer Stephanie Vlachos said, "When Keauhou came here, she was about 8 to 12 months old; now she is between 4 and 5 years old. She originally weighed 98 pounds and now weighs over 300 pounds.

"If you see her curling her tongue, that is how babies nurse and get the milk to the back of their mouth."

Visitors also learned a little about Keauhou's anatomy and physical characteristics. "The hairs on the whale's body are only there for about the first week of life, and then they fall out. You can always see where the hair used to be," Vlachos said. She also showed the participants two scars that appeared to be caused by shark bites, guessing that the baby and mother may have been attacked by a shark.

At the end of the tour, we witnessed the successful release of a red-footed booby and a few shearwaters.

"We didn't think the red-footed booby would survive," Nishimura said. "She was lifeless when she was first brought here and severely dehydrated and underweight." The rehabilitation process strengthened the birds to prepare them to fly the coop.

Others in the park's sanctuary are usually brought in by the public and include chicks that fell from their nest or malnourished birds. Some of them were wearing bandages.

The albatross, a large white bird with black wings, is native to the Hawaiian Islands. Its wingspan measures approximately 6.5 feet, and each bird has a black patch in front of its eye. A baby albatross was brought to Sea Life Park in June and was due for release, waddling out of his kennel, shaking his tail feathers and flapping his wings.

After he tried to take off several times, with the crowd cheering him on, the staff decided it was not the right time for him to leave. "We had so much fun with him, we were hoping he would take off. He may not be at his ideal flying weight yet since he's a very heavy-bodied bird," said Nishimura, who said his job is a rewarding one.

"It's fun to get cards from kids that come to the interactive program, who go on to college and tell me they are now graduating with a degree in marine biology. I think to myself, 'That kid was really paying attention,'" said Nishimura.

He added, "You never know which one of these kids could be the next Jacques Cousteau. We always try to answer and explore their questions. They could actually discover something to save the world."

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