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Amazing training of the Nausicaa sea lions in France

 Nausicaa Sea Lions

Nausicaa’s sea lions are famous for their shows but as with any performance, a lot of work goes on behind the scenes to make sure it’s perfect as Janine Marsh reports…

I was recently invited to meet some celebrities in France – the sea lions at Nausicaa, one of Europe’s largest public aquariums, located in Boulogne-sur-Mer, Pas de Calais.

The six sea lions (lions de mer) put on a show for their adoring public throughout the year and what a show it is! But as with any performance there is much work that the public don’t see to make sure that the animals know their lines!

I was introduced to Aurelie and Virginie the two trainers who were working that day – there are seven trainers in total and they are all totally dedicated to the health and well-being of these beautiful creatures. They told me that training is essential to keep the animals happy, stimulated and safe and consists of physical, mental and medical exercises. By now my mind was reeling. How could a wild animal like this possibly be trained to such a level?

Virginie called to Speedy and Fridolin – the friendliest sea lions of the bunch and I was stunned at the sheer size and evident muscle power of these magnificent beasts. In the flesh they are much more powerful looking than when we see them gliding through the water or flopping about on the rocks.

Virginie summoned Speedy to come forward – all 220 kg of him! She asked him to lift a flipper and wave – he was a little nervous because I was there and it was explained that if a sea lion doesn’t feel like doing his exercises – that’s okay, he doesn’t have to. They don’t make the animals do something they don’t want to do. Speedy was allowed to go back to his private pool and calm down.

Training the sea lions at Nausicaa

Speedy quickly regains his composure and wants to come back and play!  Virginie says to me “Do you want to hear him? He’s very loud!” Of course I tell her and she beckons him over and tells him to talk to me – the noise! It’s like the loudest foghorn in the world just went off a foot away from me and she stops him quickly before we all have our ear drums burst! (Check out the video above to hear him!).

Fridolin, smaller at 160kg but still massively powerful, is a little more aggressive than Speedy and Virginie uses a target to control him. The target is a stick with a red ball on the end – the sea lions are trained to move according to where the target is placed though Speedy is so intelligent and placid that he follows the trainer’s hands more than the target.

Fridolin opens his mouth to show us his teeth, lays down, rolls over and turns – it is quite incredible to see him completely understand the human voice commands. He even allows the trainers to stroke him – quite an accomplishment since sea lions hate to be touched. The trainers explained that they deliberately condition the sea lions to become accustomed to human touch – when the vet has to conduct checks it makes it safer for both parties.

All the commands are reinforced with fish – a fully grown sea lion will eat 6 – 10 kg of fish a day and the trainers say it’s the fish that really encourages the animals to do as they’re told.

I ask Virginie how she learned her skills as a sea lion trainer – there is no university course that I know of and she tells me all the trainers learn on the job. When Nausicaa acquired the sea lions 15 years ago, a visiting vet helped train the animals’ carers and they developed from there. Now these trainers are an award winning team who probably know more about sea lion training than almost anyone in the world.

nausicaa sea lions

When Aurelie says to Virginie about cleaning Speedy’s teeth – he opens his mouth in readiness – he clearly understands the words. She tells him look up and he rolls his eyes up, “left… right… down” he obeys every command instantly and never has to be told twice – it is astonishing. Aurelie asks him to stand up to be measured and he obliges – leaning against a wall and towering over everyone – it’s an awesome sight.

The medical training that Aurelie and Virginie demonstrate is nothing short of amazing. They have taught the sea lions to pose for an X-Ray – of their head, flippers, whatever part of the body is required. The trainers simulate taking blood – like humans, the animals don’t enjoy this aspect of their healthcare so the trainers accustom them to the practice by pushing the end of a wooden stick into their skin so they are used to the sensation and not scared when it really happens. They also train them in a cage environment for times such as when they need to be anaesthetised so that the animals aren’t worried and are ready in place for the vet.

The Nausicaa sea lions slide across the floor like children at a wedding – they seem happy and buoyant and they are most certainly enjoying being given fish!

nausicaa sea lions

Next its mental training time and Aurelie lays out some random letters and symbols against a wall behind Speedy. Virginie says “Speedy I want the Cross” and off he slithers across the floor straight to the Cross – then the letter E, the letter L – a sea lion that can read!

“Do you want to say hello to him?” she asks me, absolutely I say and wonder what that will involve. She tells him to say hello and holds her hands to mine – Speedy lurches over and holds his whiskery face to my hand – I feel the full strength of his fishy breath and his big eyes look deep into mine – there is clearly intelligence there and then he burps a big fishy burp – I think he likes me!

Next sea lions Algon and Xino come in and go through their training. Virginie tells me that Algon is aggressive “it’s in his nature” and he arrived this way. Nevertheless she can get him to do anything including putting his head into a gas mask to simulate receiving medical treatment. He has his teeth cleaned and spits the water out – everyone laughs and Algon slithers happily across the floor for a fish.

Then the two baby sea lions come in to meet me – they’ve been at Nausicaa for two years and they are adorable – a little afraid of me because I am a stranger but in the short time they’ve been with the Nausicaa trainers they’ve come a long way. I’m staggered at their performance – they can turn, roll, wave, shake hands, go backwards and undertake many of the commands that their older friends have learned. The trainers are softer with the babies, getting them used to human touch, encouraging them.

Virginie estimates that the Nasiscaa sea lions know in excess of 60 voice and hand commands. She tells me that they must be strict with the animals. They must respect that these are wild animals and although they have a relationship, the sea lions are in no way “pets”. The trainers see their job is to enrich the lives of the sea lions and she says “we like them very much but we always remember that they are dangerous animals and being too close to them is not good for them.”

After the training session it’s time for the show and the sea lion area is packed to the rafters. Luckily Nausicaa has just updated their sea lion area and has made the million litre pool even bigger and now has 600 covered seats for visitors. This is the most popular part of Nausicaa’s offering and the audience is riveted by the antics of the sea lions who perform and show off for all they are worth. Aurelie has already told me that the sea lions love to have people clap them and as they swim, leap out of the water, jump up on the rocks, wave at their visitors and show their skills off – there is certainly no shortage of clapping going on.

If you want to see the Nausicaa sea lions doing their thing – there is a daily show throughout the year – with 2-3 shows per day in the peak summer months.

With around 36,000 animals – you’ll need to allow 2-3 hours for a full visit.

Tickets can be bought beforehand on line and you’ll find all the details of the show times, the animals and facilities on the Nausicaa website (English language version).

Read our review of Nausicaa

Janine Marsh is a journalist and editor of The Good Life France

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