Above the sea

I hit the ground running on “zoo day” last week, giving first- and-second-graders a ten-minute frog talk and moving on to a bullsnake demo with William, the largest and calmest snake I’ve ever held. My zoo day ended quietly, though, with a rare dive-spotting shift in Discovery Bay. Although the word “soporific” comes to mind, there are worse ways to spend half an hour than sitting poolside with a walkie-talkie, alone at the top of the shark tank, keeping an eye on a pair of aquarium staffers as they clean the tank’s interior. The smell of fish, the bubbles rising from the divers’ oxygen tanks and the occasional squeaking of the dolphins next door had nearly lulled me into a stupor (my eyes still fixed on the divers’ shapes in case of a highly unlikely crisis) when an unexpected sight jarred me into full-alert mode. Appearing out of nowhere, the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle swam by.

When I started at the zoo in late 2003, the shark tank included three giant green sea turtles that drew excited gasps from guests whenever they swam into view. Achieving the goal for most sea turtles in aquariums, they eventually were released into their native waters (which for that trio, meant a return to Hawaii). Our two current sea turtles — a green one and this Kemp’s Ridley — arrived later from the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue & Rehabilitation Center in Topsail Beach, N.C. Both were “boat-strike” turtles whose injuries left them with permanent buoyancy problems — in other words, difficulty diving, which makes them too vulnerable for ocean life. During daily shark feedings, the green sea turtle is sometimes lured down into view with a bunch of weighted lettuce. But our Kemp’s Ridley is harder to spot, and even from my perch on high, it was only within my camera’s scope for a minute or so. Of the eight species of sea turtle, the Kemp’s Ridley is the smallest, weighing less than 100 pounds full-grown. And this one is more fragile than most, thanks to its close encounter with a boat propeller. It may be hard for visitors to see, but at least it has found a safe, permanent haven among our sharks, rays and eels.


When the zoo started having volunteers do “bench talks” a few years ago — armed with skull replicas or the preserved pelts of animals whose lives ended naturally — the red panda became my first favorite bench talk to do. Even snoozing on a tree branch, as they usually are, these nocturnal creatures are visitor magnets, and the chance to “pet” a furry pelt while learning a few panda facts just amps up the interest for most visitors. And during the midday hour I spent on the Tropics Trail last week, the red panda on exhibit was emphatically not snoozing.

I’m not sure what made this guy (I’m pretty sure he’s a guy) so active on this particular day, but ironically, zoo staffers had recently built him a “chair,” or basket, for lounging. To me, it looks just like an oversized bird nest, shown here with the panda’s ringed, raccoonlike tail draped either behind or inside it. He curled up in the “chair” periodically but stayed mostly on the move as I watched him, trying to balance my bench-talk duties with the urge to catch this rare burst of activity on camera.

Here’s the older female, who was off exhibit Thursday, snoozing a few weeks ago. Note the darker rings on her tail, compared to the whiter rings of the tree-scaling fellow on the right. Several observers on Thursday compared him to a cat; others, even more appropriately, likened him to a fox. In fact, the Chinese name for these China-dwelling animals is “hundo,” which translates to “firefox.” Despite their English-language name, the link to giant pandas is actually fairly shaky: residence in China, a fondness for bamboo, an enlarged wristbone that serves as an opposable thumb. Scientifically, the amazing cuteness probably doesn’t count as a link between black-and-white pandas and the red ones, but I still think it’s worth mentioning.