Visitors gain access to the Sarasota Sea Lion PReserve   in Myakka City for the first time since its founding by Marco Peters in the late 1990s, as the center evolves to meet the flamboyant pinnipeds’ needs. A former Ringling Bros big cat trainer, Peters gave up handling the fearsome incisors of lions’ roaring jaws to care for these mane-less, agile swimmers—24 California and Patagonian sea lions that call the Preserve home, to be exact—now open to the public after being sequestered for 20 years, aiming to raise awareness and promote the conservation of marine mammals by allowing personal interactions with its flippered residents. With a playful gruff, or deep, loud bark, you’ll meet slippery stars such as Grommet, Hans, Bruce, Stella, Poonki, Lilly and Avocado—whom may wriggle, splash, hug and even plant kisses on cheeks, but none of which can ever be released in the wild, due to either old age, injury or being born in captivity. And through a hands-on program designed to show people how to care for them, handle them and understand them, Peters hopes visitors leave with both memories and inspiration to be part of conservation efforts. “This is not a petting zoo,” Peters says. “My hope is that this becomes part of Sarasota, like how Mote Marine Laboratory became a part of Sarasota.”

MARCO PETERS POSES WITH A COUPLE OF FLIPPERED FRIENDS, STELLA AND KITTY, AT THE SARASOTA SEA LION PRESERVE. PHOTO BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

Reservations are limited and a paid entrance fee exists to raise funds. Tours include land and water options with photos, as well as opportunities to learn what it takes to be a trainer (water quality, fish preparation, habitat maintenance and behavioral education). sarasotasealionpreserve.com, 941-219-3583.