About That Time I Swam With a Whale…

So if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Flickr, you know last weekend I had one of the most incredible days of my life.

(Yes, I’m talking about Sea World again.)

Besides just being able to enjoy Sea World in all its holiday finery, I also got the special opportunity to experience the Grand Adventure tour and campout overnight in the park. What is the Grand Adventure tour? Well I’d call it the mac-daddy of all close-up, behind the scenes animal interactions and tours combined into one day!

When I arrived at the park Saturday morning the first thing I did was meet up with the awesome Sea World PR team and my Wildside blogger buddies in the overnight camp dorms to drop my sleeping bag and stuff. It was super fun and cozy. Then we met Cheyenne, our Grand Adventure tour guide for the day. She works in Sea World’s education department and she is amazing! Her enthusiasm and depth of knowledge knows no bounds.

First Cheyenne took us to meet Kyle and Kelsey, the dolphin trainers. We spent a long time learning about and interacting with two bottle-nose dolphins, Gilly and Brady. I could write a whole post just on what I learned about these dolphins and the great conservation work Sea World does. But pictures tell the story better!

Wildside12-33

We each got some time to pet a dolphin, feel it’s fin and tail, interact with it, and feed it some yummy fish. Here’s a video of me asking Gilly to do his hula dance.

Wildside12-5

Untitled

Wildside12-58
Here’s trainer Kyle teaching us all about Brady’s teeth and tongue. Kyle and Kelsey were awesome teachers.

Wildside12-104
After the dolphins showed off a bit for us, we moved on to the behind-the-scenes stingray tank. Cheyenne taught us all about the various types of stingrays, and then we each fed them some calimari. It was really cool and felt a little brave of me to feed these guys by holding the food below them and allowing them to swim over top and suck up the squid like a little vacuum cleaner.

Wildside12-108Wildside12-119IMG_1954

Wildside12-166
Speaking of brave, the next activity we did involved a bunch of sharks. First our fearless leader, Cheyenne, wrangled a small shark from the larger tank and put it in a shallow cage that we could reach. It took her a little while but she was awesome.

Untitled

Then we each took turns reaching into the cage and petting the little shark. Carefully. His skin was not soft and smooth like the dolphins, it was more scaley and rough like a snake or sandpaper. This is me petting the shark, being asked to smile for the camera, but not wanting to take my eyes off the shark while my hand was in the tank.

IMG_1041
Then we checked out a little labratory they have for growing and studying different types of coral. They don’t actually use the coral in the park, but they share their research findings for the benefit of coral restoration projects worldwide.

Wildside12-171 
Then we met some seals and sea lions who were presently not out for public viewing. We met a huge sea lion named Tacoma who was rescued after being relocated to prevent gorging on salmon near a damn in the Pacific northwest. We also met three baby sea lion pups he fathered this year! They are only half-siblings but they seem to get along very well. 
Wildside12-191 
After a yummy lunch we went to visit the seals and sea lions out in the park at Rocky Point Preserve. We each got to feed them some more of that delicious fish. 
Side note…by this time in the day my clothes were starting to smell fishy from all the times I would feed an animal and quickly wipe my hands on my pants before grabbing my camera. Totally worth it, though! 
Look at this sweet little harbor seal! 
Wildside12-242-2 
The best part of the day came when we headed over to behind Beluga Stadium for the Beluga Whale Interaction. Yes, that meant swimming with the whales! 
Untitled

First we headed to a classroom where trainer, Megan, taught us all kinds of amazing facts about the Beluga whales. They are gentle giants for sure, not at all aggressive like orcas or dolphins can be. They have no real way to protect themselves so their first instinct is to flee potential danger. Their big foreheads are actually filled with oil and they can change the shape of their oily melon however they want. It helps them use sonar detection to navigate through very dark deep oceans where they can’t see.

Wildside12-251-2

Next we all hopped into the private trailer dressing rooms and donned our wetsuits. They were very hot in the sunny 85 degree weather but proved important for swimming in the 65 degree water.

Untitled

Here we are hanging out with Oliver the beluga. He was the sweetest thing EVAH! So soft and friendly. We loved on him, petting him pretty much everywhere. Did you know belugas are ticklish? Yep, I tickled his belly and he twitched like crazy.

UntitledUntitledUntitled

I totally forget what I asked him to do with my hand motions, but whatever it was he did it. We also spent some time with Luna, another beluga, who you see leaping into the air in the photo above. I was mesmerized and grinning ear to ear the whole time we were in the water. The beluga interaction is a little expensive, but I found it to be well worth it. There’s just no way to convey how cool this experience was.

The last up-close animal experience we had for the day was behind the scenes at the Penguin Encounter. Penguins are absolutely my favorite animal so you can imagine how this excited me. We learned a lot about what they eat, the various species they have there, how they mate and keep their eggs, and what the baby penguins look like. We got to sneak into the exhibit from the back side and as soon as we entered, several little guys came running up to us looking for food.

Wildside12-268-2

Wildside12-261-2Wildside12-288-2

Then in the back kitchen they brought Rosita, a rockhopper penguin, out to meet us.

IMG_1108
After all those animal experiences we headed back to camp to decompress at bit. So much information and excitement for one day! We also took in three shows, the sea lion show, the Shamu show, and Reflections, the end of the night Christmas program. Not to mention a delicious dinner at Shamu’s Smokehouse and tons of sweets provided back at camp for our late-night noshing. 
I do love this group of Wildside bloggers! Some of the photos here are from Colleen, Brenda, Julie, Stacy and Heidi. You can view a slideshow of the rest of mine here. Also pictured below are Debra, Kami and Courtney. We were provided this amazing experience as part of the Wildside blogger program
SAM_0152

The Grand Adventure tour is not *just* for VIP bloggers either, it can be experienced by anyone! Smaller pieces of the tour, including animal interactions such as swimming with the Beluga whales, are available for purchase as well.

So if you love animals like I do, I highly recommend you check out all the various exclusive park experiences at Sea World. I’m going back with my family in a few weeks and I can’t wait.