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Tropic wonder

Katrina destroyed Murray the sea lion's home, but he and his pals are back in action in the Bahamas, where he'll greet you with a kiss.

September 14, 2008|Terry Gardner | Special to The Times

NASSAU, BAHAMAS — Close your eyes and pucker up as the mysterious dark-eyed stranger tenderly presses his velvety lips against yours. You've just kissed Murray, a 464-pound California sea lion refugee from Hurricane Katrina who now lives with his harem in the Bahamas.

For $80, visitors can frolic with Murray or one of five other California sea lions at Dolphin Encounters, a marine showplace and one of the few places in the world where you can take part in a sea lion encounter.

The total adventure lasts about three hours, including a scenic catamaran trip through Nassau Harbor to Blue Lagoon Island (20 minutes each way). The activity begins with a 15-minute crash course in sea lion conservation, which advocates protecting these social "sea dogs" from pollution and fishermen who shoot sea lions if they compete for fish.

Guests also learn how well equipped sea lions are for travel by water or land. Their wing-like front flippers (with a bone structure similar to our arms and hands) propel them through the water while their hind flippers steer. Unlike seals, which wiggle on their bellies to move on land, a sea lion rotates its hind flippers to walk on land and can run faster than most humans.

After class, guests go down to the calm private lagoon to meet a trainer and a sea lion for the 20-minute session on a waist-deep platform. The adventure is heightened by the sea lions' unusual back story -- their escape from Katrina, a pit stop in Orlando, Fla., and their happily-ever-after here in the Bahamas.

The sea lions' ordeal began three years ago when Katrina destroyed the Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport, Miss.

Nineteen sea lions and one seal were left behind at the facility, which was destroyed. After the storm, sea lions were recovered from as far as 20 miles away. At least five died during the storm or from storm-related injuries. The seal was never found. Sea World Orlando provided temporary housing for the survivors until an old friend provided a permanent sanctuary in 2006.

That friend is Kim Terrell, the marine mammal director of the popular Dolphin Encounters. Terrell had previously worked 15 years at the Marine Life Oceanarium and already knew Murray and several other sea lions.

After the storm, Terrell frantically sought information about both her animal and human friends. As soon as Terrell reached Don Jacobs, the owner of the Oceanarium facility, she offered Dolphin Encounters' assistance.

Once plans were underway to adopt some of the sea lions, Terrell and a coworker spent six weeks at Sea World to ease the animals' transition.

"Since sea lion hearing is excellent in both air and water, voice recognition is an important aspect in their training and relationship building," Terrell says. "Many of the animals recognized my voice as soon as I arrived."

The animals that came to live with Terrell were chosen with an interaction program in mind. Murray, the only male, was chosen for his disposition and because he was genetically unrelated to any of the females. The sea lions traveled by truck, plane and boat from Orlando to their new home on Blue Lagoon Island. The tropical temperatures don't present a problem for them because all were born in aquariums and spent most of their lives in Mississippi, which has hotter summer temperatures than the Bahamas.

"Sea lions are very adaptable to the environments in which they live," Terrell says.

"The funniest thing was watching their response to the other residents in their habitat, as Dolphin Encounters is a natural ocean facility and the pool is full of fish, crabs, conch, lobster and even eels," Terrell says. "These animals -- all born in an aquarium -- had never seen live fish before. Much of the first few hours were spent with sea lions on the docks with their heads in the water watching the wildlife. They quickly adapted and now the fish look out for them."

These days, Murray greets visitors by offering his flipper for a handshake, then a hug and the offer of a kiss: cheek or lips -- your choice. Visitors also feed Murray a herring, capelin or smelt, which he'll swallow in a single gulp.

He's only about 6 feet long, which is relatively small. But at Dolphin Encounters, for the first time, Murray gets to be the alpha male.

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travel@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

DOLPHIN ENCOUNTERS

BLUE LAGOON ISLAND

www.dolphinencounters.com

A high-speed double-decker catamaran takes visitors on a scenic boat ride from the Paradise Island Ferry Terminal to Blue Lagoon Island. If you're staying in Nassau, bus transportation is available upon request from your hotel to the ferry terminal.

Costs through 2008

(including catamaran):

Sea lion encounter: $80

Observer: $20 (you stay dry watching from a platform)

Dolphin encounter: $85

Dolphin swim: $165

Dolphin and sea lion combo packages are available at a 10% discount.

Maximum group size for all programs is 10.

Departure times:

8:30 and 10:30 a.m.; 1:30 and

3:30 p.m.

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