Like all good teachers, Alysoun Sea-cat regards her pupils as individuals. You couldn’t just tempt Mimi with a fish and expect her to jump through hoops. Shy Mimi, a young dolphin, had to be coaxed. Finally, after three weeks of persuasion, she did it—and got not only the fish but plenty of praise.
Nuka, the walrus, on the other hand, was quick on the uptake. “She was so eager that if I didn’t stay one step ahead of her, she would get one step ahead of me,” says Seacat, the 30-year-old Daryl Hannah lookalike who is director of training at the New York Aquarium on Coney Island. The California-bred Seacat (her own honest-to-cod name) has trained mischievous sea lions and reluctant penguins, captivated dolphins and even tamed a 6,000-lb. killer whale (“You can’t use intimidation,” she says. “A whale can just swim away”).
Then there is her prize pupil, Nuka, definitely a prima donna. “When she isn’t performing a show, audiences can catch her sunbathing on a rock in a kind of Playboy pose,” says Seacat. “She not only performs the stunts we teach her on cue, but she has come up with her own—like hosing down the audience and whistling at them. She’s a regular Whoopi Goldberg.”
Seacat has also made audiences jump through hoops. Since 1983, when she began training the animals and mounting the shows at the aquarium, yearly attendance has soared—from 450,000 to more than 700,000. After all, there aren’t many places you can see a woman swimming with a beluga whale and putting her hand in its mouth to stroke its tongue. (Whales love it.)
If Seacat has managed to puzzle out the behavior of sea creatures, one species of land mammal still eludes her: man. “I’d be on a date, and the guy would look into my eyes and ask me why I smell of fish,” she laments. “Fish scales would fall out of my hair at the most inopportune moments. One gentleman brought me home early, explaining that mermaids weren’t his type.”
Well, she still has Nuka. And with a walrus, that fishy smell is the aroma of which beautiful friendships are made.