ATLANTA (AP) — The Georgia Aquarium opens a new exhibit Thursday that is sure to make a splash.
As part of the aquarium's 10th anniversary celebration, it's introducing 14 rescued California sea lions.
The sea lions come from California's Marine Mammal Center, which put out a call for aid during a mass stranding of sea lions on beaches.
NEW FACES IN NEW SPACES
Last year was a bad one for sea lions, said Will Elgar, director of the aquarium's animal training for pinnipeds, the term for fin-footed marine mammals. Hundreds of sea lions have been found starving on beaches, including pups abandoned by mothers venturing farther out to sea to forage for food.
"It could be El Nino or climate change, but one of the big things for us is over-fishing our sustainable resources, so we try to teach people to be seafood savvy," he said.
Four young sea lions are among the aquarium's new residents, and they've been working with trainers multiple times a day to prepare for their debut. For the past two weeks, they've been performing in front of cheering practice audiences, said aquarium spokeswoman Jessica Fontana.
"These practices help to get them used to crowds, people and noise," she said. "We are feeling everything out with the crowds from our standpoint, too."
The sea lion exhibit includes mature animals that were rescued years ago as well, including Nav, an 11-year-old sea lion that weighs in the neighborhood of 500 pounds. He may appear clumsy with his heavy wet fins flopping across the stage, but gasps from the audience soon follow when he breaks the water's surface with the grace of an Olympic diver. The veteran performer weighed just 60 to 80 pounds when he was rescued around a decade ago.
Nav lived at the Georgia Aquarium before, from 2005 to 2007, but he's among 14 who've been arriving at the aquarium over the last six months.
While the group varies in age, none will be returned to the wild. Once a sea lion is rescued and tagged, if it's found three times, it is classified as non-releasable.
ENTERTAINMENT AND EDUCATION
Elgar said the staff envisions the show as a dynamic experience, aimed at using entertainment to help educate the audience about the animals they have put so much effort into saving.
The sea lions "are very curious and gregarious, but charming and have great characteristics," Elgar said. "This is the perfect setting to become aware of just how amazing they are."