By Donna Harris
GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) — Sea lions are back on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Abandoned by their mothers in California, two whiskered marine mammals have found a new family in Gulfport.
Kaytee and Sage, 9-month-old female sea lions, arrived at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies Center for Marine Education and Research a few days apart in late February, IMMS Executive Director Moby Solangi said.
The institute has been on a waiting list for sea lions for a few years, but until now none of the stranded or abandoned creatures recovered in the United States were healthy enough to be transferred to South Mississippi.
The two females were found on opposite ends of the Pacific state and sent to IMMS to live because sea lion orphans that young can't be released into the wild, he said.
"They'd be eaten by sharks since they'd have no defensive skills," he said.
Kaytee came from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif., while Sage traveled to Mississippi from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, Calif.
Their temporary homes in Gulfport are two side-by-side pens, each holding a 300-gallon tub for a pool, as they get used to their human caretakers and to each other.
As they progress in their training, they'll be moved together into a bigger pen with an 18,000-gallon pool, Solangi said.
Trainers Kelly Pulis and Emma Jarvis work with the sea lions several times a day to get them used to human touch through verbal reinforcements and a huge supply of sliced herring.
The trainers will eventually add some common tricks to their commands for the sea lions, like "shaking hands, giving kisses," Solangi said.
The pair may be ready to face the public by summer.
About 30 sea lions were a part of Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport, which Solangi co-owned and operated until it was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. Four were not recovered; the others were sold to a company in the Bahamas, he said.
This is the first time sea lions have been back on the coast.
He'd like to add about a dozen rescued sea lions to the center's menagerie.
Besides Kaytee and Sage, IMMS has four dolphins — Bo, Buster, Apollo and CJ — tropical birds, sting rays, sharks, turtles and a variety of fish.
"This is just the beginning," he said.
The pair will be a "good educational tool" for children who visit IMMS, Solangi said. "They're going to be making learning fun."