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Gail Pope: Flash, Marineland's sea lion celebrity remembered


Suave, urban, yet somewhat cheeky, Flash the Californian sea lion entertained and wooed locals and tourists alike with his antics for almost 20 years. Combined with his alluring good looks, long whiskers and liquid black eyes, Marineland’s anthropomorphised sea lion became a much-loved national celebrity and ambassador.

Flash was one of three young Californian sea lions brought out by freighter from Los Angeles to the marine park, December 1967. The two-year old began his training almost immediately and showing great promise, was groomed as the star of the sea lion show which debuted in December 1969. The show featured stage props, costumes and music.

Dressed in the official Marineland cap and tie or top hat, Flash’s acting repertoire included walking on his back flippers up and down stairs balancing a bar or ball on his nose, supporting his weight on both front flippers and then spectacularly on one, and gracefully standing upright on his black flippers in a balletic stance. Throughout his routine he encouraged audience participation by clapping his flippers and at the end would bow and return, shuffling to the sea lion pool.

The sea lion trainers ensured that Flash’s routine were always full of surprises - so to keep the audience entertained Flash would act out scenarios such as “coming home rolling drunk”, playing dead, getting into a shower, pulling the curtain around him, sending underwear flying, reciting his prayers, kissing his trainer ‘good night’ and finally retiring to bed.

By 1973, his repertoire was further extended to robbing a bank, being imprisoned in jail, escaping, getting shot, dying a slow death and then being placed in a coffin.

Like all actors, Flash sometimes grew tired of performing and would suddenly leap halfway through his act - top hat and all - into the main dolphin pool. On occasion Flash got a little too playful. When a schoolboy Marineland assistant playfully bent over in front of the sea lion, he was nipped on the buttocks. Although the bite was not intended to be vicious and the injured boy’s skin not punctured, Flash was sent to his quarters in disgrace.

Very quickly Flash gained a national reputation and became acclaimed as “one of the most talented, versatile sea lions in the county”. On his first birthday at Marineland, national television personality Relda Hamilton, feed him fish from a bucket and confessed to a large captive audience that Flash was her “boyfriend”. Such was his popularity that Flash’s second birthday attracted 2,400 children and adults to Marineland and was celebrated with a specially made, slightly fishy, birthday cake. The children attending the show were “lavished with ice blocks, chocolate fish and apples”.

Celebrities visiting Napier were eager to meet Flash. During the 1971 Lions Rugby tour of New Zealand, the team visited Marineland, and shook flippers with him and proudly posed for photographs. Two years later, Flash and Australian TV star, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, eyed each other suspiciously at the edge of the dolphin pool.

Photographs of Flash were used extensively in Marineland promotional material. Other companies were keen to get on the advertising band wagon – with Johnny Walker whiskey featuring a photograph of Flash on one of their labels. Because of his celebrity status Flash was invited on many occasions to officially open new buildings or companies. He was taken to Taradale to cut-the-ribbon of the new Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne Savings Bank. While there he was presented with his own personal bank book which he ungraciously tried to eat.

Flash even took up professional acting making his stage debut at Napier’s Odeon Theatre. In mid-1970, he ‘strolled’ across Marine Parade wearing a sailor suit, collar and cap, to welcome and help the Minister of Tourism, Bert Walker, open the new Travelodge Motel. On the itinerary of the 1971 Girl Guide International camp, held in Hastings, was a visit to Marineland, and Flash, keen to entertain, posed for photographs suitably attired in Girl Guide hat and scarf and smoking a pipe upside-down.

By 1986, Flash was Marineland’s oldest resident. It was estimated he had performed before well-over three million visitors, including in 1970, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. In his younger days he performed a solo act twice a day, but with age, began to share the spotlight with fellow sea lion Pepe. In the summer of 1985 he deservedly retired.

Flash died on 22 November 1987 - he was 22 years old. His body was immediately put into the freezer and a Hastings taxidermist contacted. Almost a month later, Flash’s sea lion companion Lady, gave birth to Holly and, as the couple had been romantically inclined over the past year it was determined Flash was the sire. The suitably posed and mounted Flash returned home in May 1988, and was displayed in the Marineland foyer for all to see and touch.

22 June 2020

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