The black-spotted gray harbor seal dives deep beneath the turquoise water. The crowd stands silent, waiting. Then the torpedo-shaped body explodes from the water and rises high in the air, the black nose nailing the bright-colored beach-ball dead center. The crowd cheers. Skully strikes again.
But 13-year-old Skully isn't your average trained seal, and his home is not your average aquarium. Skully was born in a large commercial aquarium near San Francisco, but he developed cataracts and ended up at Ocean World in Crescent City, Calif.
What: Ocean World Aquarium
When: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the summer and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the winter; all tours close at dusk because the aquarium uses only natural light. Open seven days a week year-round, except Christmas Day.
Where: 304 Highway 101 South, Crescent City, Calif.
Tickets: Children 3 and under are free, ages 4-11 are $5.95 and age 12 and up are $9.95. No senior discount.
"He wasn't trained to do much of anything when he came," says Ocean World's head animal trainer, Kristoffer Strom. "He's really learned a lot, especially when you consider that he can hardly see at all. He uses his other senses to compensate."
Skully snaps up his treat of raw fish and undulates across the deck to join his tank mate, Marina.
At approximately 31 years of age — close to the life expectancy of a harbor seal — the smaller blond seal restricts her tricks to less athletic pursuits, partly due to age and partly to the arthritis that prevents her from ever returning to the wild.
Marina was rescued after a savage shark attack near Trinidad, Calif. It's unclear whether the arthritis is a result of the attack or, perhaps, one of its causes. "It's possible that she already had arthritis, and that's why she couldn't get away from the shark," says Strom.
Marina's favorite pastime is resting on the deck in the warm sun, but she waves a flipper to the crowd or hides her eyes in mock embarrassment right on cue and is suitably rewarded with pieces of fish.
On Aug. 2, 2009, the two harbor seals got reinforcements all the way from a zoo in Germany, in the form of a baby California sea lion named Cora. "The waiting list for baby seals is very long here in the U.S.," Strom says. "The people in Germany were nice enough to let us have Cora.
"We have three trainers working with her every day, teaching her the basics," Strom adds. "She doesn't always listen, but she's picking stuff up pretty fast."
Stuff like jumping up to hit the beach ball, which she decided to try on her own without any coaching and nailed the first time. "She's just a fireball of energy."
Energy abounds at Ocean World, from the animals to the staff to the visitors. Guided tours, with the aquarium's three animal trainers doubling as tour guides, are hands-on and interactive, starting with the touch-and-feel tide pool. Audience volunteers take an active part in this presentation, where learning about animals is a big part of the fun.
From there the tour moves below decks, to sealed tanks beneath the surface of the harbor, where leopard sharks cruise and a scuba diver hand feeds a small school of bat rays.
Then on to the shark petting tank, where Ocean World claims no one has lost any fingers yet. Note: Real, wet sharkskin feels different than imagined — softer and squishier and very, very smooth.
The tour ends with the performing seal show, where each seal's needs are taken into account. "We try to keep challenging Skully to jump higher and learn new things," explains Strom. "Otherwise he might get bored."
And what about aquarium visitors?
"We want to encourage people to learn about and care about animals," Strom notes. "If they leave knowing a little more than they did when we started, then we're happy."
To help visitors remember what they've seen, photo options abound throughout the facility, ranging from the scientific to the kitschy. Look for pirate statues in both the aquarium and the gift shop, and don't forget to have your picture taken inside the mouth of a giant shark.
Ocean World may not be the world's biggest aquarium, but it has something for everyone. And the one thing you won't find at Ocean World is a script. "Every show is different," says Strom. "We just have fun with the animals."