By KATHERINE HOBY
It's a brand new, luxurious, $5 millon home with pool and landscaped gardens - and its new occupants are sealions.
Auckland Zoo's latest high-tech facility, the Bluebird Sealion and Penguin Shores, opened yesterday.
To see them playing on land, you might think the zoo's trio of sealions are clowns, rather comical and clumsy in appearance.
Nothing could be further from the truth when they hit the water.
Scuttle, Keel and Kipper are the epitome of grace and style as they turn circles and lazy somersaults underwater.
The three Californian sealions, all born at Auckland Zoo, seem ecstatic to be in their new home. The main pool, at 3.6m, is over three times as deep as the old one, built in the 1930s.
Sealion keepers Brooke Noonan, Andrew Coers and Manu Ludden all agree that their charges seem very happy with the new enclosure.
They have been housed there for several weeks now and were introduced slowly to the new surroundings.
"They clearly are really enjoying themselves," Mr Coers said.
"They have a lot more space, we are able to do more training sessions and, frankly, they just seem quite blissed out, like they can't quite believe it."
That is certainly borne out by the sight of the sealions gliding like bullets and twisting upside down in their underwater grotto.
They frolic and play with wetsuited trainers, who feed them tidbits of squid and other fish. They nudge the trainers' hands, searching for food, much like a dog.
Sometimes they pause during their circuits of the pool to gaze at those surveying them from outside.
It almost seems that they are showing off, but the keepers, who have formed close bonds with them over the years, know better.
"People think they're performing, but none of our animals perform," one comments. "It's all natural, disguised as play."
But much of the time they devote to one another, twining around their fellows, nipping playfully at them, and breaking the surface to breathe.
It is like a vast underwater ballet that only they know the routines for.
The exhibit, which took 18 months to construct, recreates a New Zealand coastal ecosystem and boasts features found nowhere else in Australasia.
One is the large underwater viewing window, which is 140mm thick and was designed in Japan.
Zoo director Stephen Standley said the exhibit had been a dream of his for years.
"The exhibit has taken a lot of planning and dedication from the staff ... It's amazing to see the dream finally come true."
The main pool has almost 500,000 litres of water continuously circulating. And behind the scenes a $1.5 million life-support system ensures the water is kept top quality for the sealions.
The mammals are given thoroughhealth checks three times a day.
Keel, Kipper and Scuttle will have the pool to themselves until next month, when they will be joined by two New Zealand fur seals being transferred from Napier.
A walk-through aviary will allow people to view a variety of bird species from pied stilt to the endangered New Zealand dotterel, and the smallest member of the worldwide penguin family - the little blue penguin.
But there is no doubt who the real stars are, performing an endless stream of loops and rolls like aerobatic pilots.
It is, quite simply, a rhapsody in blue.
* Auckland Zoo is open every day from 9.30 am until 5.30 pm.