When I signed up to sleep under the sea lion sound at the Saint Louis Zoo, I had a lot of questions, but I couldn’t find many answers online about how the evening would unfold. The thrill of not knowing what to expect only added to my excitement, but today I’m posting a review in case anyone out there is on the fence about attending this event.
We received our logistics letter in the mail about ten days before our overnight. It had a list of items we should bring, and a list of items we should not bring. Following the directions on this brief letter, we entered the zoo through the South gate at about 6:15 pm. A zoo employee pointed us over the the fountain, where our group was gathering. The particular overnight we’d signed up for was adults-only (the family version welcomes children ages 5 and up, no little ones like E and C), but there were youth groups and girls scout troops meeting nearby for other sleepovers elsewhere in the zoo. At about 6:30, two employees came over and introduced themselves as our leaders. They explained that since the zoo was still open, we couldn’t take our belongings to the sea lion sound just yet. Instead, they lead us on a short hike down into the basement of the primate house to drop off our things and to listen to the rules of the scavenger hunt.
The basement of the primate house is set up a lot like a kindergarten classroom. There are paintings of animals on the walls, and several long tables with short chairs. We put our stuff into cubbies and sat down at the tables. Our leaders each told us a little about themselves and their work with the zoo, then they gave us a quick rundown of how the scavenger hunt would work, and they divided our group of sixteen participants in half to form two teams. There would be a prize for the first place team, and also a prize for the second place team, so no one would go home empty-handed.
We received our team’s manila envelop, and the leaders instructed us to open them at exactly the same time. I’m very socially awkward, so I was a bit nervous about being on a team with so many strangers. As it turned out though, the scavenger hunt was VERY well put together and it ended up being a great ice-breaker. While each team was required to stay together throughout the activity, there were four different tasks which must be accomplished simultaneously. There was a trivia portion, a part that required taking strategic photos throughout the zoo, a portion dedicated finding and describing specific landmarks across the grounds, and a series of games we all needed to find our way to and successfully complete. Most people had come with one other person, be that a friend, relative or significant other, so each got to work with someone we knew to complete our own portion of the scavenger hunt, while occasionally pitching in to help out another pair or to get help from them. A leader stayed with each team to keep us honest (no googling allowed) and to ensure we didn’t get lost.
The scavenger hunt was a lot of fun, and my team finished first, so we were fairly confident we’d won first place. We waited beside the sea lion sound for the other team to catch up with us, and shortly after they arrived, our dinner was served. I had been curious about what the vaguely-mentioned ‘catered dinner’ would be, and it may not be the same every time, but we had sandwiches, salads, chips, drinks, and cookies from Panera. There was plenty of food for everyone, and our leaders tallied our scores from the scavenger hunt while we ate.
By the time we’d finished our meal, the sun was setting and the zoo had officially closed. We hiked back to the primate house to collect our prizes and our sleeping bags. It turned out speed was not the name of the game in the scavenger hunt, and the other team beat ours by about five points. They received very cute elephant mugs, and we received colorful lanyards featuring a variety of zoo animals. We had a chance to discuss where we’d gone wrong in the scavenger hunt, then everyoneheaded back to the sea lion sound.
There were no sea lions to be seen as we set up our sleeping backs. We lined them all up in a long row, side-by-side, then grabbed our flashlights and headed out for a night hike and a flashlight tour of the herpeterium. By now there were no other people around. At the herpeterium, we were issued pieces of red cellophane to put over our lights so we didn’t blind the reptiles. I hadn’t been all that excited to look at them in a dark building, and one member of our group chose to sit this portion out, but it ended up being pretty neat in an almost-peeing-my-pants sort of way.
When we’d finished in the reptile house we walked around the zoo a bit and saw the lions and the polar bear, but of course they were asleep. We made it back to the sea lion sound at about 11:30 and settled in to sleep. The view over our heads was beautiful, because the water was clean and we could see the stars through it, but there was not a single sea lion.
At about 1 am, I opened my eyes to see the dark figure of a sea lion swimming over the top of my head. It was awesome, and I kept watching in the dim light for awhile, but I eventually went back to sleep. Then, at about 3:30 am, things got interesting. The sea lions had realized we were there, and they were EXCITED! A few of them kept swimming over us, back and forth, while others came down low so we could look them right in the eye. The woman next to me put her sweatshirt up to the glass and moved it in a circle, and a sea lion did flips while following it. When I yawned, a sea lion imitated me!
Someone noticed we could play peek-a-boo with them, ducking down just out of their sight and then popping up again. They played along! I alternated between playing with what felt like my own personal sea lion and lying down to watch the others swimming over us, two and three at a time, as the sun came up.
Once it was daylight, I was able to take some great pictures of the sea lions–the kind of pictures I always struggle to get during daytime zoo visits and never quite seem to manage. At about 7 am, when we headed back to the primate house for breakfast. The food was a step down from Panera, but not too bad. There was cereal, milk, orange juice, coffee, and muffins. We each got a glow-in-the dark ‘Wild Nights at the Zoo’ cup, and we had the opportunity to buy glow-in-the-dark t-shirts for $15. After returning our belongings to our cars, we all came back to pet the stingrays and we got to see them eating their breakfast!
It was clear that the St Louis Zoo had put a lot of effort into their Under the Sea Lions Overnight program, and our leaders certainly helped us make the most of our time in the zoo that night. What really set this overnight apart, though, was the sea lions themselves. We weren’t crowded an tripping over other participants in an effort to get a look at one animal who couldn’t care less about us. We were lying back, minding our business and the sea lions came to us! There were enough of them to keep everyone in the group entertained, an they seemed to genuinely enjoy our company.
Tickets to this unique event, as of August 2016, cost $75 for members, or $80 for the general public. The zoo only sells sixteen tickets per session in order to ensure they provide a quality experience for every participant. Family overnights under the sea lions cost $60/members and $65/general public, and as soon as E turns five, I’ll be checking that out!
Tips and Tricks:
- Wear comfortable shoes, obviously. There’s a lot of walking involved.
- Bring in a charger for whatever device you’re using to take pictures. You won’t have constant access to a power outlet, but there are some in the primate house you can use at the beginning and toward the end of the event.
- Consider your bathroom habits when you walk from the primate house to the sea lion sound with your sleeping bag. There’s only one way out of the tunnel during the night: the end that’s used as the entrance during the day. If you know you won’t be getting up to go, and you don’t want people stepping over you to get out, walk toward the front of the group and set up camp near what would normally be the exit of the tunnel. Similarly, if you want to go in and out without disturbing people, be one of the last ones into the tunnel and sleep near the entrance. Don’t be the very last person in though, especially if you have a full group of sixteen, because it didn’t seem like that person in my group was completely under the sound. He looked halfway under the water and halfway under the solid portion of the tunnel.
- Bring a sheet, preferably a light-colored one. When we first laid down in the tunnel, it wasn’t ridiculously hot, but it was too warm to sleep comfortably in my sleeping bag. A sheet will allow you to cover up without getting sweaty, and the lighter it is, the easier it should be for the sea lions to find you.
- I’m not sure the prizes will be the same every time, but if you happen to win a mug, I would suggest asking the leaders to let you leave it in the primate house overnight. You have no use for a mug in the sea lion sound, and one person in our group had hers fall and break.
- If you order a t-shirt, keep in mind that they’re unisex. That should have been obvious to me, but I got the size I’d wear in a women’s t-shirt, and it’s pretty big on me.
- Stash away some chips or a cookie from dinner to smuggle into the tunnel. You’re technically not supposed to bring snacks, but when you’re up all night, you’re going to get hungry. I smuggled in a cookie, and no one said anything to me about it.
- If you can think of nine other people who would enjoy this, consider scheduling a private overnight. I enjoyed getting to know the other participants in my group, but if there’s anything cooler than sleeping under the sea lions with people you’ve just met, it’s got to be sleeping under the sea lions with your friends.
- Enjoy your overnight under the seals! Yes, I said seals. Seals and sea lions aren’t the same thing at all, but the St. Louis Zoo houses both animals in the same enclosure. If you don’t know how to tell them apart before you attend this overnight, don’t feel bad–it’s about to become crystal clear! The seals are shaped more like torpedoes, and their skin is somewhat spotted. Their fins are different as well. You’ll see them swimming back and forth over you throughout the night, but they aren’t likely to come down and interact with you the way the sea lions do. The seals certainly aren’t the main attraction at this overnight event, but I found them to be a delightful bonus.