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New sea lion exhibit at Riverbanks Zoo ‘best in the country’

Riverbanks Zoo members arrived at the zoo Monday eager to see the newest residents: Four sea lions and one harbor seal.

The animals seemed to be enjoying their new home at Sea Lion Landing, a $12 million exhibit that has been years in the making. On Monday, the sea lions twisted and turned as they swam inches from guests in an underwater viewing area, looking graceful and at ease in their 250,000-gallon saltwater habitat.

“We’re really excited to reveal Sea Lion Landing,” Riverbanks’ curator of mammals John Davis said. Zoo staff spent time touring some of the best zoo facilities in the country and “took all of their good ideas and put it into one facility,” he said. “It’s the best in the country, no doubt.”

The attraction marks the final phase of Destination Riverbanks – the zoo’s $36-million expansion and development project. The exhibit is meant to look like San Francisco’s famous Pier 39, where many sea lions live today.

“We made the decision not to make this a naturalistic exhibit. It’s that urban edge where mammals and man meet,” Davis said.

The new habitat is home to four male sea lions: Baja, 14, Ranger, 4, Maverick, 4, and P.J., 3. Gambit, a male harbor seal, is 10.

Sea lions and seals are closely related, but sea lions have brown skin, can grow up to 8 feet long and weigh up to 850 pounds. Harbor seals have grayish, speckled skin, can grow up 6 feet long and weigh up to 300 pounds.

“The animals are getting along really well together,” Davis said. “The group’s interactions are amazing. It’s a real treat to watch them in the water.”

Gambit is the newest arrival and hasn’t been introduced to the pool yet, but should be part of the attraction before the public opening, Davis said.

Riverbanks previously housed South American sea lions from 1974-1981 and California sea lions from 1974-2009. The zoo tore down the 35-year-old exhibit with every intention of bringing it back bigger and better, public relations manager Susan O’Cain said.

“This is one of the animals we are consistently asked about,” she said, adding that it was one of the zoo’s most popular exhibits.

Zoo members can enjoy the new exhibit through Friday. Sea Lion Landing will open to the public June 9.

Guests can view the animals from above on The Wharf’s upper deck, from below in the underwater viewing area, and above and below simultaneously at an outdoor amphitheatre.

“From what I’m finding, anytime is a good time” to catch the animals in action, Davis said.

“It’s never a dull moment.”

You also might like: Highlights of Riverbanks Zoo’s Waterfall Junction opening

New at the zoo

Riverbanks has opened several new features since last summer, part of its $36 million expansion. In addition to Sea Lion Landing, other new features and exhibits include:

▪ Grizzly Ridge

▪ Otter Run

▪ Waterfall Junction

▪ An enlarged entry plaza

▪ Gift shop

Photos: Riverbanks Zoo's new grizzly and otter exhibits

If you go

Sea Lion Landing

WHERE: Riverbanks Zoo, 500 Wildlife Parkway

WHEN: The park is open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Members-only drop-ins at Sea Lion Landing are 3-8 p.m. Monday through Friday this week. The exhibit will open to the public at 9 a.m. June 9.

COST: $13.95 for adults, $11.50 for children ages 2-12, free for children younger than 2.

DETAILS: (803) 779-8717 or www.riverbanks.org

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