The day of liberation was at hand and the three caged sea lions were nervous.
They had been together for months, ever since they had been washed up, sick and loaded with parasites, on the shores of Venice and Redondo Beach.
Now the sleek, dark creatures were healthy, and the pen at Marineland was too small for them.
Nose to tail, they swam restlessly round and round and round their Jacuzzi-sized pool, pausing only to lift their heads for a gulp of air. A pair of them, like partners in an unhappy marriage, would occasionally face off, snarling and baring efficient-looking teeth.
Brad Andrews viewed the tense animals with satisfaction.
"They are not friendly," he said. "We don't want them to be friendly."
In the ocean, the sea lions will compete fiercely for food. Andrews, general curator of Marineland, said their restlessness was a sign that they--and three other stranded sea lions who had been restored to health--were ready to return to the sea.
But before that could happen last weekend, there were Southern California formalities to endure--complete with the inevitable celebrities. Indeed, the release of the sea lions, a celebration of wild things set free, was orchestrated to serve a more worldly purpose. It became the backdrop for an announcement of the creation of a tax-exempt foundation at Marineland to care for sick and injured marine life.
For 15 years, animal lovers all along the Southern California coast have been dropping off stranded sea creatures at the ocean-oriented theme park in Rancho Palos Verdes. In a typical year, the park gets between 300 and 350, mostly sea lions and seals. Once they even got a whale.
In 1983, savage winter storms beached several thousand animals that wound up at Marineland. The park's owners decided that Marineland needed a better way to raise the $150,000 a year it currently takes to operate its animal care center. (As a business operated for profit, Marineland cannot take tax-deductible donations and is barred from receiving certain research grants that could help finance its work.)
Thus was born the concept and, after much paper work, the Palos Verdes Marine Animal Care Foundation.
On hand last weekend were Kirstie Alley and Parker Stevenson, actors in the "North and South" television mini-series.
"I grew up near the ocean. I feel more comfortable there than on the land," said Stevenson, explaining his support. Alley, his wife, said, "The reason I got involved is that, through history, man has been taking from nature. This is an opportunity to give something back."
While the stars were reciting their lines, Patty and Lolita stole the show.
The two sea lions came lurching out of their cages, all energy and good will, comically showing off for everyone. Lolita repeatedly sniffed Stevenson's neck.
"I got a new girl friend here," he said.
"As long as you have a lot of fish in your refrigerator, you are fine," curator Andrews joked.
Patty became so excited that she fell off her stand and flopped around near Alley. "Don't eat your sponsor," Alley scolded, backing away. Marineland officials packed Patty off to her cage like a naughty child ordered to her room.
Patty and Lolita were not sent back to the sea and never will be. They were rescued as infants and have become so used to human care that they would not be able to survive in the wild, Andrews said.
In addition to rehabilitation, scientists working at the care center hope to learn about the parasites--mainly lung worms from infested fish--that afflict many animals brought to the center.
They are trying various drugs to get rid of the tiny worms, and different techniques of diagnosis. In the future, they hope to track some of the animals in the wild to see if they remain healthy--or, perhaps predisposed by some genetic defect, if they fall ill again.
The sea lions had to be ousted from their pen before the return trip to the ocean. Their ejection was accomplished with a large piece of plywood thumped menacingly as an attendant advanced on them.
Once outside the pen, the indignant animals lumbered hesitantly past a row of cages, pausing at one point for what looked like goodbys to still-recovering colleagues.
Then it was a slither into portable cages and a short, swaying ride on a forklift down to the ocean's edge.
A jumbled mass of rocks and boulders and a narrow stretch of sand lay between the animals and the ocean. Alley and Stevenson opened the first cage, slowly, stopping occasionally for the photographers.
Three sea lions came out cautiously. Then they saw the water.
And nature took over.
Oblivious to the cameras, the celebrities, the foundation, the tax-exempt status and parasitology, the animals slipped, slid and flopped over the jagged rocks in a dash to the ocean. They sprinted the last sandy feet of beach and reached the water with three smooth splashes.
They dived and surfaced and dived again, swimming a minute or more underwater before surfacing.
By the time they emerged, a wonderful change had taken place.
Their caged tension was washed away. In its place, at least for a little while, was the camaraderie of cellmates at large for the first time.
The freed animals cavorted. They lazed about. They meandered along.
In a gesture of exploratory tenderness, two gently touched noses.
And, still together, the sea lions swam away.