With Sea World education department director Joy Wolf (who just happens to be a past student of Ben Hulse) at the helm, the children were presented with a 30-minute program on marine life that included an inflatable killer whale expanding to its full 16-foot-length before their eyes.
"I liked putting on the penguin mask best," said 9-year-old Lucia Sanchez, who was lucky enough to be chosen to dress up in a penguin costume that came complete with a large pair of "penguin" feet, "and I liked wearing the feet," Lucia added as an afterthought.
Standing at the back of the cafeteria clearly enjoying the children's pleasure and interest in the program, Sea World General Manager Dennis Burks said, "Education is a major part of our vision and our mission … we believe it is important to share the knowledge we have with kids."
Burks, who would not ordinarily go on tour with the team, hitched a ride Tuesday so he "could see firsthand our educational staff at work."
And just in case you're tempted to think a general manager of a large organization like Sea World would travel in style, think again. Smiling at the thought, Burks conceded he would be traveling back to San Diego in the "penguin van."
Undeniably the stars of the show, Pete and Penny were kept out of sight until the end of the program when they were presented to the children.
Penny came first, sauntering along confidently, looking right and left as she made her way to the front of the cafeteria, her delighted audience "oohing" and "aahing" at the prospect of being up close and personal with a real live penguin.
And those students were even more delighted and excited when told they would each be able to give the dynamic duo a "gentle pat with just one finger."
Eight-year-old Cristina Ruiz was quietly pleased with herself for having petted Pete.
"He felt furry," she said afterward.
And when the show ended Thursday morning it didn't really end because the Shamu 2 U tour is traveling in unique style — it's riding in eye-catching Shamu cruisers.
Eight Volkswagen Beetles painted to look like killer whales, complete with tails and dorsal fins, were waiting outside Ben Hulse, ready to ferry the penguins and their human crew on to the next port-of-call, Escuela Primaria Presidente Miguel Alemán, an elementary school in Mexicali.
Smiling broadly as she stepped into her personal Shamu cruiser, Terry paused for a moment to describe the reaction of people seeing the caravan of whale cars for the first time.
"We will be out in the middle of the desert driving in this ‘pod' of eight whale cars and people just have stunned expressions on their faces when they see us coming. Then that expression turns to a smile and that turns into a wave and a thumbs up … and then they try to get their camera or video camera out in time and take pictures of us as we drive by."
To follow the progress of the Shamu 2 U tour, visit www.seaworld.com
Students with questions about marine life can call SeaWorld's Shamu Information Line at (800) 23-SHAMU. The toll-free number is manned by a Sea World educator 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. seven days a week.
>> Staff Writer Jennifer Ralton-Smith can be reached at 337-3442 or email@example.com