When I arrived home after taking part in this week’s Live Like a Tourist activity, I had to inform my husband that I had met a handsome young man while working and had quickly fallen for him.

Since we have been together for 35 years, the husband believes he knows me pretty well, so he pretty much just shrugged his shoulders and continued what he was doing. He was correct to not be concerned, since the chances of Hansi and I being together is probably not a realistic hope.

Hansi is, after all, a 600-pound, eight year-old South American sea lion who lives at the Sarasota Sea Lion Preserve. I met him and his preserve mates when I took part in a sea lion experience there.

I know what you’re thinking, “Sea lions in Sarasota?” And you would be right to be skeptical. But Squalus, Inc., the parent company of the preserve, has actually been around for more than 20 years. Marco Peters, the founder and president, and his partner Stefi Slavova began building and providing a safe haven for sick and injured sea lions back in 1997.

This past January, they started opening up their state-of-the-art facility to the public in the form of back-of-the-scene tours and interactive experiences with the sea lions. When I visited, I chose to do the land and paint interactions. I also had the choice to actually get in the water with the sea lions, but I am a complete wimp about cold water and wasn’t feeling like getting in that day.

It didn’t matter, though, because I had an incredible time. My very capable guide was Caisha Wafful, and she showed me around the whole facility. I saw the walk-in cooler where the 400-500 pounds per day of fish the sea lions eat is kept, as well as all the various pools around the property that are just meant for those beautiful animals. She also showed me where their vitamins and other nutritional supplements are stored and talked to me about how two of the older sea lions had recently undergone cataract surgery there and were doing great.

But it was the time after I got the facility tour that was the most special. That’s when I got to meet some of the residents up close and personal. Hansi, who showed me some cool tricks, both in and out of the water, and Kitty, who made a beautiful painting for me, came to play and we had a great time.

I observed that sea lions, though much bigger, are not really all that different from domestic dogs, though they may be better swimmers. My Golden Retriever Luna certainly was very suspicious of where I had been after I got home, even if my husband wasn’t. Luna paid extra close attention to my cheek, where my new boyfriend Hansi had given me a kiss.

Farewell, my young man-hope to see you again soon.

Debbie Flessner writes the Live Like a Tourist column for the Sun newspapers. You may contact her at dj@flessner.net.

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