The sea lions of Theater of the Sea in Islamorada are home safe after taking refuge at a private marine mammal park near Sarasota before the Category 4 Hurricane Irma struck the Keys in early September.
Seven of the eight mammals have returned from the Myakka City facility, but one, named Wilbur, stayed behind to be treated for an eye condition common to sea lions, said Rachel Moss, assistant curator at the country’s second-oldest sea life attraction.
“Wilbur will be back in January,” Moss said. That’s when Theater of the Sea, mile marker 84.7 oceanside, is scheduled to open its own on-site surgical suite for the sea lions and nine dolphins living at the facility.
Among those who made the trip are Cole, a 2-year-old, 56-pound male, Malibu and Monica, who were rescued off the coast of California, and another rescued sea lion, Bella, who is also a new mom, having given birth to Libby just six months ago.
Joining them on the trip were trainers Andi Kimbrel, Allison Collins, Amy Wise, Samantha North, Katia Kovacic and Meredith Tyminski. At any given time, one of the trainers was with the mammals at Myakka City for at least a week, Kimbrel said, and the they are also taking turns spending time with the 440-pound Wilbur, the largest sea lion at Theater of the Sea.
Like many other well-known businesses in Islamorada, Theater of the Sea was hit hard by Irma. Evacuating the sea lions, it turns out was a wise move.
“I’ve been here 30 years, and through [hurricanes] Andrew, Wilma, Georges, Wilma,” said curator Beverly Osborne. “And every time we relocated the sea lions and the birds.”
The dolphins are better able to ride out the storm, Osbornes said, and were left in the facility’s 22-acre lagoon.
“They can dive down when it gets rough and come up quickly to breathe,” she said.
The grounds of the marine park look practically spotless as visitors are once again enjoying the shows there. But the interior buildings took a beating, Osborne said, and will have to be rebuilt.
“A four-foot surge covered the entire facility. All the buildings flooded,” she said. “We lost everything — medical equipment, scales, locks, the entire gift shop.”
The sea lions’ living area was also damaged and had to be repaired before they could return home from Myakka City, Osborne said.
“It’s hard to see the place like this. We will build it back better than ever, with the same service and the same shows we always did,” she said.
David Goodhue: 305-440-3204