If you've ever been to SeaWorld Orlando, it's likely that you saw the venerable show Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island, featuring the two namesake sea lion stars. They're joined by Sir Winston Walrus, Opie the Otter, and of course their human friends.
In reality, there are actually several sea lions playing the Clyde and Seamore roles, and they're so smart that they can perform either role. There are also about a dozen otters and multiple walruses who play the Opie and Winston roles.
How exactly do the trainers turn the animals into stars? As with all of the performing animals at SeaWorld, they use targeting, positive reinforcement, and an extension of each critter's natural behaviors.
I had the pleasure of watching a sea lion training session to see how it works firsthand. The animals learn to touch a target pole, and that knowledge can then be extended to have them follow the pole and also respond when various parts of their bodies are touched. When they do something right, they get positive reinforcement in the form of treats, petting, or other enjoyable rewards. Although the sight of a sea lion snapping up a piece of fish comes to most people's minds when they think "reward," they're actually not the most food motivated animals, so trainers use other things like attention and affection to let them know they do something right. If they do it wrong, it's ignored so the incorrect behavior won't be reinforced.
Click the slideshow accompanying this article for some scenes from the training session. If you'd like to see a full video of the session, as well as a question and answer period, go here.
In addition to seeing a young sea lion who's just learning how to do the behaviors, we also saw one of the old hands who showed how it's done one an animal is fully trained. We also saw "Winston" (actually a female walrus) perform a number of behaviors. Opie was there, too, mainly just hanging out and being cute. The otters don't have a very long attention span, so they're trained to do simple, natural behaviors that are used briefly in the show.
Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island closes for good on August 10, but there's a brand new show taking its place in 2015, so you'll soon see a brand-new performance featuring the talented aquatic critters. If you'd like to see more photos of the animals up close, jump to this article. For a video of Winston the Walrus go here. To meet Opie Otter, go here.