By Jessica Wasmund
In order to become a U.S. Navy SEAL, extensive training and physical sacrifices are required. Few cadets are chosen for the program, and even fewer make it through training. However, not many people know that the training to become a Navy sea lion is equally challenging.
Jester, a 4-year-old California sea lion originally born in Sea World of Florida, has recently been released from the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program. The 275-pound male, along with a variety of other marine animals such as seals, whales and dolphins, have been recruited and trained by the Navy for deep-sea diving missions for over 50 years.
Yet after three years of training, Jester just could not make the grade.
“Just like in the canine world, some dogs are able to work and just aren’t cut out to,” said Jennifer Humphrey, the supervisor of marine mammals at the Aquarium of Niagara.
Humphrey found Jester at a national forum for animal trainers and jumped on the chance to bring another sea lion to Niagara Falls.
“After leaving the Navy, it was a matter of finding a place that fit him,” she said. “We’ve only had females in the past 15 years, so to bring a boy into the mix was a little challenging.”
From there, Humphrey flew down to San Diego twice to meet the members of the training program and most importantly, start forming a trust bond with Jester. “While I was there, I got to go out for one of the training missions, and it was just amazing,” Humphrey said. “The animals were swimming alongside the boat, just so excited to work, and I was able to see them dive and everything else.”
Once it was clear Jester would fit in well at the aquarium, arrangements were made to transport him to his new home. He, along with Humphrey and four NMMP members flew six and a half hours in a C-130 military transport.
“It was great because we landed at our own Niagara Falls Air Force base,” Humphrey said.
Jester made for a calm traveler, relaxing in his cage while being constantly sprayed by his human traveling companions to keep cool.
After arriving, Jester made a fast, easy transition into life at Niagara Falls.
“He’s a very easy-going animal. He has never shown any aggression,” Humphrey said. “He had a great introduction to the aquarium, he works well with and trusts all the trainers, he’s really just a great animal.”
Others at the aquarium were happy to welcome Jester into the fold.
“It’s a great opportunity to have the Navy select us to allow Jester to come here,” said Director of Development Gay Molnar. While wild sea lions are expected to live only 15-18 years, those in captivity usually live to be anywhere from 25-35 years, making Jester a long-term addition. “We’re looking forward to many wonderful years and hope people come down to welcome our new sea lion,” Molnar said.
Already he has moved into the main tank with his three new roommates, Squirt, Julie and Diamond, each of which were also born in captivity.
“It’s very different from what he’s used to, he’s never had girlfriends before,” joked Humphrey. “In San Diego, he lived in a smaller ocean pen with fish swimming in and out, but he wasn’t comfortable in the open water. Here with the people and all his new toys he seems much more at home.”
For now, he’s performing in training shows once a week.
“At first he was a little nervous, the clapping is something new to him,” Humphrey said. “There’s lots of new sounds, and he just needs to adjust. Over winter break there were a lot of children here, and he got a nice warm welcome. They’re happy to see a new face in the crowd, and already he acts like he’s been here forever.”
Jester generally has seven to eight training sessions each day, lasting from 5-10 minutes apiece. His stint in the Navy has taught him two unique tricks that his fellow sea lions cannot do.
“He has been taught how to wear a harness, as he would for diving missions, and he has been taught how to salute,” Humphrey said. “We tell the audiences he learned that in the Navy.”