long-beach-aquarium

Sea lion and 5-year-old form friendship through aquarium glass

Nov. 13, 2012 at 11:29 AM ET

John K. Goodman /
Five-year-old Sean Goodman has struck up a friendship of a different sort with a California sea lion at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif.

Every month, 5-year-old Sean Goodman plays a little game with one of the sea lions at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif. He traces a gentle arc with his dad’s keys along the curved glass of the animal’s display, and the sea lion eagerly chases after their glittery trail, like a puppy playing catch.

Sean started playing with California sea lion Milo a year and a half ago, but last week they attracted quite a crowd while performing their trick together. Milo was in a particularly playful mood, and Sean’s father John K. Goodman, an animator and freelance photographer, captured it all on camera.

John K. Goodman /
Sean throws a set of keys against the glass, and Milo follows their movement. Aquarium curator Dudley Wigdahl says sea lions are fond of shiny objects.

“That particular day (he) was really excited and just wanted to play. Who was I to stand in the way?” Goodman, 43, told TODAY.com. “People stopped to watch because somehow they had this synergy that was pretty special.”

And despite being on separate sides of the glass, Goodman says that both sea lion and child got something out of the crowd that assembled. “My son likes to perform a bit, so when people come it eggs him on. And the sea lion enjoys the interaction, too.”

Goodman and his son visit the aquarium at least once a month, and it’s usually Sean who ends up tired from playing with the 6-year-old marine mammal.

John K. Goodman /
Sean's father, John Goodman, has been a semi-professional photographer for ten years. One theme in his work is animal life.

“It’s pretty amazing — the sea lion tires my son out because he’ll never stop,” he said.

Milo is young, so it's no wonder he has limitless energy. California sea lions, which are a type of pinniped, are innately social creatures — and extremely curious.

“Of course, the younger they are, the more curiosity they have, and they’re more interested in what they see through the glass,” Dudley Wigdahl, curator of the aquarium’s marine mammals told TODAY.com.

In aquariums, children are usually the wide-eyed ones with their little hands (and faces) pressed up to the display. But it’s really no different with sea lions, according to Wigdahl.

“Older animals don’t seem to be as interested, but I think that curiosity seems to be typical of most young animals,” he said.

John K. Goodman /
"They are really playful animals," Goodman said. "They're bored out of their skulls in the tank and looking for something to do."

California sea lions are relatively easy to train, and staff members often use their hands or white balls as “targets” when teaching the animals new tricks. That’s why it’s not so uncommon for the aquarium’s sea lions to enthusiastically respond to a person’s outstretched hands, or even the glimmer of a shiny penny.

“They’ll react if it’s a unique object or something that’s unusual in their environment,” Wigdahl said. “Seeing that through the glass, that would be something unusual.”

Even in the wild, California sea lions stick together, lounging on rocks or floating in “rafts” with hundreds of others sea lions. And when they’re not cuddling up, you can catch them frolicking in the surf.

John K. Goodman /
Infant sea lions stay with their mothers for six to nine months. When mom heads out to find food, the pups are left alone on the beach to play with one another, Adam Ratner said. It's during this time they begin to develop social skills.

“They kind of group together for play,” Adam Ratner, the visitor programs coordinator at The Marine Mammal Center, told TODAY.com. “They love contact. I think of their behavior as being similar to that of dogs — they’re very social in everything they do.”

They’re not camera-shy, either.

Check out the entire set of photographs here.

Danika Fears is a TODAY.com intern who has never managed to grab the attention of a sea lion at the Long Beach or any other aquarium. That doesn't mean she's quit trying.

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