Big Guy was clearly one happy guy.
He was back in the water, after all those hours in a cage. First within an airplane, then in a FedEx truck. Finally, he was back in water with a belly full of herrings, churning out one lap after another in a pool at Utah's Hogle Zoo, coming up every so often to snort in apparent exaltation.
"He's happy he's here now," said Michelle Hanenburg, his almost equally delighted zookeeper after she coaxed the blind, 850-pound sea lion out of his cage following nearly 12 hours of travel.
"He's had a long day. He's been dry for a long time," she added, noting "he couldn't stretch. It's like being on a long plane ride."
After being cooped up for so long, Big Guy moved pretty slowly when he first arrived at his new home Friday about 6 a.m. He sniffed the air above his head. His body wiggled now and then, but he didn't move when the cage's gate was opened.
Since he couldn't see the opening, having been blinded in some sort of battle or accident in the open seas before his rescue two years ago by the Marine Mammal Care Center in Los Angeles, Hanenburg got Big Guy's attention by repetitive pats on a home plate-size piece of plywood.
"Come on," she urged, reciting another word Big Guy had learned in his training at the California care center. "Follow."
And he did.
A couple of thrusts of his big body Big Guy ate more food than any other animal ever treated at the care center and he was out of the cage, flopping along the concrete floor before turning into his pool, Hanenburg's voice and the smell of herrings leading him in the right direction.
Probably the smell of water, too, judging by the sea lion's obvious joy as he whirled around the 15-foot-by-15-foot pool, doing the backstroke on a few of the laps. His every move was watched by smiling Hogle Zoo staffers, and photographed by a few.
"He's probably much more relaxed now. Getting forklifted and crated and having planes around you is a scary thing," said Hanenburg, as one of her coworkers ushered everyone out of the pool area near what will be, come June 1,Big Guy's home in Hogle Zoo's new $18 million Rocky Shores exhibit.
Big Guy needed to rest.
Hanenburg and her coworkers will spend the next few weeks building a relationship with Big Guy, a rapport built around their daily deliveries of breakfast, lunch and dinner herrings, herrings and more herrings.
"He has a high hunger drive," she said. "After a while he'll know that every time we show up good things happen."
Big Guy's presence overshadowed the arrival of two young sea lions, Maverick and Rocky, who also will join seals, eagles and bears as residents of Rocky Shores. The bears include Rizzo, a 14-year-old female polar bear who watched Friday's proceedings from an open-air cage, where she has been acclimating since being delivered to Hogle Zoo earlier this week.
Like Big Guy, the exuberant little sea lions frolicked in their pens, sliding on their bellies and flopping into their pools, splashing, yawning and generally making a ruckus.
Friday's welcoming ceremony was an important milestone for the zoo, which now includes several keepers imported from California and Florida because "they have the passion, educational background and expertise of working with marine animals," said Hogle Zoo spokeswoman Erica Hansen.
"These are the last of our new animals. The seals and others are already in their exhibits," she added, counting down the days to the debut of Rocky Shores. "We're inching closer to June 1."
The $18 million exhibit that Utah's Hogle Zoo will unveil June 1 will be home to Big Guy, a blind, 850-pound sea lion that arrived Friday from California. Lacking adequate facilities, Hogle Zoo has not had a sea lion for 17 years or a seal for 18 years.