At 4:20 p.m. this week I headed to the St. Louis Zoo. With heat hovering at 101 degrees F and the zoo closing at 5:00p.m. (Mon-Thursday), I figured I would have ample time and no crowds to view the new "Sea Lion Sound".
Timing is everything: I pulled into a parking space opposite The Living World and strolled past zoo staff and volunteers inside. I continued Easterly past the Stingray Exhibit and Ray's Cafe (get it?) to the Lakeside Cafe at 4:30 p.m. where the kids were cleaning up and prepping to close. I ordered French Fries ($4.89) and Kathleen the Cashier wanted to know if I would donate an extra $1.00 to Zoo Conservation. I told her, "No", but she could certainly have the remaining 11 cents from my Fin ($5.00 bill) for such a good cause. She looked confused as to how to handle this small donation and told me I could not get the free sticker.
I exited Lakeside Cafe with my $5 fries and "smuggled in" Diet Coke. I sauntered through the Sea Lion Tunnel, allegedly the longest such structure in any zoo. The waters were crystal clear, the fake grey boulders underwater very imposing, and you could see towering cumulus clouds upwards through the clear glass. Nary a sea lion in sight! However, two cliff swallows rocketed through the tunnel above me.
Exiting the tunnel, I found a table and chairs in the shade with a perfect view of five sleeping sea lions. I asked a nearby zoo staffer, Peter, why they were not frolicking in the cool water. He replied that they were fed at 3:30 p.m. and were digesting their dinner. Sure enough, an occasional belch from them broke the silence. I slathered my fries with ketchup, drank my Diet Coke, and quietly belched myself. At 4:55p.m., the littlest sea lion rolled over and waddled under the shady overhang with the adults. The bull male bellowed at this disturbance, but soon everyone settled back into deep slumber.
Determined to see the sea lions in action, I walked to the zoo the next morning arriving at 7 a.m. The sandwich-board signs were up that the Sea Lion Tunnel was "closed for the day". I asked the zoo staffer, Kent, busily wiping the glass wall with a rag and Windex if the exhibit would be closed all day. He smiled and said it would open at 8:00a.m. By then a crowd of 50 persons had assembled. It looked like we were all going to go into the tunnel to be "beamed up" to the Mother Ship (L. Ron Hubbard, anyone?).
Precisely at 8 a.m. the gates were opened and I waited for the crowd to surge through ahead of me. The morning sun poured down through the water and the glass tunnel. The sea lions frolicked above, almost like angels stroking their fin-like wings. Again, I thought of the near-death experiences that persons report walking through a "tunnel of light" and then being pulled back into their bodies. The dancing light with its rainbow reflections and the zippy sea lions in complete playful pandemonium brought on a touch of vertigo, but more importantly, a huge smile of wonder to my lips in starting the day.