Season 1, Episode 26

Sea Life Sunshine Coast 

Benjamin Starr interviews Malcolm Westwood, the Assistant Mammal Trainer at Sea Life Mooloolaba. Malcolm shares with Ben some incredible tales about the resident Seals and what a day in the life of a Mammal Trainer looks like. 

Hosts & Guests

Benjamin Starr

Malcolm Westwood

Read the transcript

Ben: We’re driving our own adventure today. We’ve gone from steam trains to hot air balloons to white water rafting now we’re down with Malcolm here at Sea Life.  This is an amazing place, what’s your title here?

Malcolm: It’s Assistant Mammal Trainer.

Ben: What does that mean, you deal with humans?

Malcolm: No, I deal with the marine mammals. Our lovely seals here, our lovely rescue seals that we have.

Ben: These rescue seals, what happens if there’re not rescued?

Malcolm: Okay, what happens is basically, if you have a rescue seal, someone’s called out to go have a look at a seal, see if its injured, they are looked at and if looking okay fine there left. If not, they’ll be taken into care, looked after and then the government authorities who would deem if suitable for release again or they would not be able to survive. The little ones that we have here came in from when they’re little and some did not know how to feed like Groucho. He’s our biggest one now, but he was found at a picnic area down in Victoria, and by the looks of things people have been feeding him and he came depended on humans so  he was hungry all the time and he was rehabilitated twice and released and came back to the same area and became a public nuisance, so we were asked to care for him.

Ben: So, these types of creatures, are they intelligent?

Malcolm: They’re very intelligent. These guys here can work out problems and solve things no worries at all.

Ben: And in terms of getting to know them, are they docile or can they give you a bit of yell when they’re not happy?

Malcolm: They are a wild animal. In one way there is fun and sort of like a dog in a way. The dog always has potential to be aggressive from that, all depends on what situation it’s in. With these guys here, we use positive reinforcement to take care of them which basically means they’re looked after really well.

Ben: So, they obviously like performing?

Malcolm: What they do and we have them trained up or conditioned as a mental stimulation for them. And one it takes care of their health side of things, we can have a trained up for X-rays, ultrasounds and health care all over. Everything else for the presentations and education of public. Now that is all stimulation for them, mental stimulation so they’re not actually performing and it’s up to them if they want to do it or not, so they choose. So, there’re not actually performing and it’s up to them if they want to do it or not, so they choose.


Ben: Do they get bored?

Malcolm: Not necessarily they can basically, as you see at the moment a couple of them walking around the place. The noise in the background there, these guys will actually sleep and swim and do things that are natural.

Ben: So, when people come here it’s really about the education, what do you want people to take away from the experience of seeing these fellas?

Malcolm: Ahh look, a lot of people don’t get the privilege of actually seeing these guys up close and personal sort of thing, so they can have a closer look and see what they are actually like, respect them out in wild and also they can help with anything that’s going out. Cause these guys in the environment that they live in going against the food supplies coming down, so there’re having trouble with that and also the biggest one is like people are realising now is the plastic pollution that goes on. There is over seven billion tonnes of rubbish going out in the ocean each year, so that’s getting larger and these guys we haven’t just in the seals.  We see in turtles, we see other animals coming in and caught up in plastic things and also eating it, like the turtles, which is just as bad.

Ben: What role do these guys play in the wild, what’s the main job?  

Malcolm: Their main job is basically to keep the fish population down and to try and keep breeding as well. Also saying that, they’re on the food chain for like sharks, orcas and that sort of thing.

Ben: Right. So, it’s a natural progressive, there in amongst the food chain.  Where would they swim down to, how far they go?

Malcolm: Okay, these guys here that we have here, you can find anywhere from around the southern parts of South Australia, that’s just South Australia I mean there’s other parts of Australia. Around from Kangaroo Island to Geraldton in Western Australia, that’s the Australian sea lions and the others you can find for Kangaroo Island up to the northern parts of New South Wales. Even some places up along the coast here we’ve had seals even up to Seventeen Seventy.

Ben: Good grief. Now, what else is on display here that people can see?

Malcolm: We’ve got octopus, we’ve got different sharks, a tunnel that you can walk through and it   gives a feeling like you are going underneath the ocean without actually getting wet. I think a lot of people just take it for granted until they walk through something like this, they really don’t understand how the ocean operates.

Ben: That’s like a lot of things,

Malcolm: Yes if you don’t understand it, you don’t fall in love with it or don’t think about out of sight out of mind. So, if they come here, they get to see what the animals are really like just not the animals. The fish, the people who are involved with everything.

Ben: Yeah. Now, what else can you do up here on the Sunshine Coast, it’s famous for lots of things?

Malcolm: Look there’s a lot of things. I love going for a walk along Moolooabah Beach. It’s a long walk and that, you can sit at the end of the mouth of the river, you can see dolphins out there sometimes and turtles, but what a lot of people don’t get to Buderim Rainforest. Now there’s two ways to approach it, you can come from the top, if you like a bit of adventure. It’s easy going down but coming back up can be a little bit hard, so anyone who just likes a casual walk through rainforest through a waterfall down the southern part and that will take you along a man-made walk, which won’t invade the environment.

Ben: The big thing that we’ve noticed on this trip is eco-tourism.  Everyone’s looking out for the benefits to the environment from everything they do from basically farming, making coffee all the way down to people standing at the reef and everyone plays a role in it and I think that’s the big thing that we have learnt. How far are we out of Brisbane because people would be listening to us thinking, well how do we get do we get to this place to see all this wonderful stuff?

Malcolm: It’s approximately an hour and a half from the centre of Brisbane so it’s pretty close from Brisbane itself. No worries at all, we have people that commute down to Brisbane each day for work and actually some of our staff travel up from there, so yeah. They love it too, it’s that easy each day to come up and down.

Ben: Now my final question is, how do you get these fellas to go back to bed now that they’ve come out? 

Malcolm: What they’ll do, they hurl themselves out onto the rock work and they’ll find their actual sleeping spots that they like to sleep in.  They all have their own enclosures behind the scenes. In there’ve got swimming ledge, and dry bed and conditioning. The only thing they are missing is a PlayStation, we’re trying to convince management that’s good stimulation for them too, but they’re not falling for it.   

Ben: Do they get to know you by voice?

Malcolm: They get to know our voices because we’re talking to them on a regular basis but with facial recognition, they have great eyesight.

Ben: Can you go up and pat them or are they fairly standoffish? 

Malcolm: For the trainers they are rather tactile because that comes in really handy for their health and looking them, that we can open up their mouth, check their teeth their eyes, their flippers, everything. A lot of people get amazed that how much fur is actually covering over them.

Ben: Yeah. I hate to think what the vet bill is.

Malcolm: We won’t mention that.

Ben: That’s why people need to come here and keep visiting because it keeps these fellas alive. Do you get calls regularly for other ones to arrive here or you can only take so many?

Malcolm: We can only take so many, but if we do get a call out, we will actually go through the proper procedures of going through the RSPCA first. They’ll go out and inspect it, if we need to, we’ll get the government authorities, they’ll come and help us go get it and then we’ll go from there.

Ben: So, you can’t buy one at a pet store?

Malcolm: Definitely not it’s against the law to actually do that.  

Ben: They are nationally protected?

Malcolm: They are actually naturally protected. These guys, they can’t even be haunted, shot or taken in unless you’re a facility like us and they’re actually injured.

Ben: Well there you go. Unbelievable. Just say we do find one injured, what’s the process to what do you have to do to help one of these guys?

Malcolm: First, give it a wide berth, let alone it’s probably could be just coming out on the land just to sleep, but to make sure, just ring the RSPCA or authorities they’ll  get in contact with the proper people to come out and check it out.

Ben: There you go.  Well look Malcolm, thanks very much for the inside today to your wonderful career.  You must go home at night and think wonder what they’re up to are they mucking up? Bet you watch them on WiFi, can you watch them on cameras?

Malcolm: We’ve got a camera up there that we do have the video inside if we need to, we can go back, but you sort of wonder what they are going to be like the morning.  Who got up the watch during the night?

Ben: Do they ever fight each other; do they get angry at each other?

Malcolm: Not necessarily, our colony is set up in such a way that we have the three males that are a different weight and that, they do get a little bit upset with each other, but like Nelson, he thinks he’s a lot larger than what he is so he tries to take on the big boy Groucho. Groucho turns around, barks and Nelson runs away.

Ben: There you go, the call of the wild. Malcom thanks very much for your time today.

Malcolm: Thank you very much guys, enjoy your trip and enjoy your stay.     

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