A Unique Seabird Trains to Teach the Public at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

This article was originally published by the Monterey County Weekly.

It was a journey that began – or ended, depending on your point of view – with a road trip from San Diego to Monterey in April of last year.

Aimee Greenebaum, curator of aviculture, and Nikki Odorisio, animal behavior specialist, were making their way back to the Monterey Bay Aquarium with an avian companion who was already accustomed to traveling hundreds of miles – just not in the backseat of a car, with two human chaperones monitoring her every move.

For Greenebaum and Odorisio, it was a new adventure. As veteran aviculturists, or bird keepers, the two are intimately familiar with how to care for and exhibit birds in captivity, yet neither had any prior experience with the species they carried that day: a red-footed booby named Sula.

“We’re not aware of any other institution that’s attempted programming with this species,” Greenebaum says. “Before we got her, I didn’t know anything about how to care for red-footed boobies.”

Sula, on the other hand – a gregarious female with trademark red feet and a striking, pale blue beak – was near the end of a long journey that began on a fishing boat somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

While details of her origin are hazy, the gist of the story is this: Sula landed on a fishing boat emaciated and in poor health – and with a fishing hook stuck in her esophagus. The crew brought her to SeaWorld San Diego, where she was fixed up and nursed back to a releasable state, meaning she was able to fly on her own, eat and had good feather quality (a critical metric for seabird health).

Yet returning Sula to the wild wasn’t meant to be. She was re-released two more times, and in each instance, she again found herself on a fishing boat in the middle of the Pacific, emaciated and in poor health. While SeaWorld San Diego was equipped to rehabilitate a bird for re-release, they were unable to house and exhibit Sula long-term. The search for a new home began.

Some 450 miles to the north, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is well-known as one of the only institutions to successfully house and exhibit another seabird species, the Laysan albatross. Makana, an Aquarium resident for over 10 years, has become an ambassador who engages in programming addressing the problem of ocean plastics pollution.

While rehabilitating an animal for re-release requires as little human contact as possible, training for programming requires the opposite: to become extremely comfortable around humans.

Sula has since comfortably settled into her airy rooftop aviary, sharing the outdoor space with Makana. She spends her days engaging in behaviors designed to give her the same experiences she would have in the wild: plunge diving for food (silverside, a sustainably sourced fish), practicing free-flying (she learned to fly on cue early on) and preening (some days, she just wants to get her claws manicured). All of this is coupled with conditioning her to human contact in preparation for becoming an ambassador animal in Aquarium programming.

When Odorisio opens the door to the aviary, Sula quickly flaps her way over, eagerly perching on her favorite trainer’s outstretched arm. It’s evident that she’s taking to the whole human-conditioning thing quite well. “Whatever it is we do with her – whether it’s feeding, training, or just coming to hang out – Sula is always just stoked about it,” Odorisio says.

While Sula has been at the Aquarium for well over a year, she’s not ready to engage in programming just yet. While she’s busy training to be comfortable around humans, Odorisio and Greenebaum are hard at work developing an educational program to accompany her meet and greets.

Aside from addressing standard facts and figures – like how long red-footed boobies live, what they eat in the wild and any mating behaviors they might exhibit – Sula is poised to become the newest face of the Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, encouraging guests to consume seafood that is caught sustainably. While it’s not known just how many seabirds end up with a hook through their esophagus, any fish-eating bird has the potential to become bycatch or get injured by fishing gear.

When the public finally gets the chance to meet Sula, Odorisio hopes they appreciate Sula as not just any bird – and take away a message about choices they can make, like eating sustainable fish species. “I hope people walk away understanding that no matter where you are, you are connected to animals that you may never get to see in the wild,” she says. “Whether you’re on the coast of California or in the middle of Nebraska, your choices matter.”

Odorisio is hopeful about her future prospects. “I’ve worked with a lot of really great ambassador animals,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever personally been around another animal that’s more right for the job.”