Wet and wild in Coffs Harbour
HAVING a quiet poolside chat with one of the trainers at the Pet Porpoise Pool isn’t so easy.
When I was there recently, we were constantly interrupted.
One female in particular was most insistent about getting our attention. So insistent, she started making rude noises and splashing us.
My visit to the iconic Coffs Harbour attraction, located on the New South Wales Mid North Coast, to talk with marine animal trainer Chris Bull, had encroached on Calamity’s playtime.
Calamity is the “yummy mummy” of the dolphin family at the Pet Porpoise Pool and doesn’t take too kindly to sharing Chris.
“It’s my fault,” Chris said about Calamity’s antics.
“Calamity is clever, she’s sassy and has a bit of attitude and knows how to work the system – I haven’t walked away from the pool after finishing our playtime so she naturally thinks I’m still here to play. She’ll keep eyeballing and trying to engage until we walk away.”
A normal day at the “office” for Chris can include training dolphins, attending planning meetings, chopping up fish and tending to exhibit care and maintenance.
“I have a degree in marine biology and picking up seal poop,” he said. “It’s like dog nuggets and has to be vacuumed out of the pool.”
When the crowds have gone home and the front gate is closed, it’s seal free time and those “nuggets” can be found all over.
“We let the seals roam so they feel comfortable in their environment. They love to drop in on the dolphins and play a bit of chasey – someone is always trying to nip someone on the bum. But it’s not only play: all this activity is great for building up their muscles and natural defence mechanisms.”
Visitors to the Pet Porpoise Pool might prefer the icy poles at the café but the seals love the special iceblocks the trainers make.
“We give the seals an iceblock with a fish or toy frozen into the middle of it,” Chris said.
“It keeps them busy. They also love the water cannons that create a fountain and you’ll usually find a seal sitting near the filling valve.
“The Australian sea lions at the park are the most playful but it’s the quiet one, Pearl the New Zealand fur seal, you need to watch.
“We have a lot of seagulls here and they take a risk flying low over Pearl – she’s managed to grab a few over the years.”
A highlight for visitors to the Pet Porpoise Pool is the show held daily at 10am and 1pm.
Like rock stars, the seals and dolphins respond to energy from the crowd. When the crowd is vocal and the applause loud, the animals will jump that bit higher or swim that bit faster.
“We have regular show development meetings where we work out what will be included and how to present it – all based around natural animal behaviour and interaction and making a strong connection with the audience.
“We make it interesting for the animals as well as the audience – they don’t get bored if we mix it up. The shows go 80% to plan but, working with animals, you always have to expect the unexpected and just ad-lib your way through it.”
It’s basically a seafood menu for the residents of the pet Porpoise Pool with food sourced locally and a menu offering a balance of salty and watery fish.
“Dolphins and seals don’t drink fresh water so we include a lot of whiting in their diet as this has high water content,” Chris said.
“When they need to bulk up to form blubber for their winter insulation, we include more mullet in the diet. They love the mullet. It’s like their chocolate cake. The dolphins eat their fish headfirst – it goes down smooth with the fins and scales pointing down.”
It’s not just the seals, penguins and dolphins who want a daily feed.
“We have to keep basketballs sitting in the top of the fish buckets we carry around or the seagulls dive in and try to score a free lunch,” Chris said.
Chris and the team at the Pet Porpoise Pool wear distinctive blue shirts with the word “crew” on the back. This is so visitors know who they can talk to and ask questions about the park.
The Pet Porpoise Pool is in Orlando Street, Coffs Harbour, and interaction with the dolphins and seals before and after the show, as well as penguin feeding, is encouraged.
Tickets can be bought at the gate or online at: www.dolphinmarinemagic.com.au.