PALMETTO -- Meet Sparky, Hansi and Zoey, the ladies of Squalus Sea Lion Show, one of the main attractions at the Manatee County Fair.
Sparky, a California sea lion and wily 8-year-old veteran of the group, comes off as the showboat. Zoey, also from California, is the 4-year-old doll-eyed princess while Hansi, a South American sea lion, is the rookie at just 18 months.
They each have their own, unique personalities but together, they are making quite a splash at the fair.
The nearly 30-minute show draws smiles, giggles and full blown laughter from the crowd. Sparky showed the crowd what happens to marine animals who swallow plastic by rolling over and playing dead, Zoey danced a jig and Hansi, with support from the audience, pulled off her latest trick, balanc
ing her body weight on one flipper.
From toddlers in strollers to adults, everyone walks away entertained.
"That was a great show," said Jonathan Davis, a Palmetto city commissioner. "It had an educational part to it about the pollution. It should appeal to everyone."
Manatee is the show's first gig of the new year. Once the fair ends Sunday, the show will travel to other fairs throughout Florida, then into Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and eventually to New York.
"They make it easy because they have such great personalities," said trainer Jill Gonzales, a Miami native who has worked for the company the last three years. "They show them off stage and on stage."
And if Gonzales makes mistake on stage, the ladies let her know.
"They're honest animals," she said. "If I don't reward them, they give me a look. If I call out the wrong name, they'll shake their head."
Gonzales said people are surprised to learn the animals are capable of so many tricks.
"They do things like you and I," she said.
Learning the routines for the show takes time, says Beccy Hughes, the second trainer who has been with a show for a year. Waving and head shakes are simple, she said, but balancing and ball and one-flipper handstands take time.
"They're like children," she said. "They learn at different paces."
And while the trio was hard at work, the 'grandma' of the bunch, Alicia, a 31-year-old California sea lion, was busy taking her nap in the background. Alicia retired from the business five years ago, but still enjoys life on the road.
"She picks what she wants to do," Gonzales said. "She'll kick one of them off and put on a show."
Nick Williams, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7049. Twitter:@_1NickWilliams