Nate and I have lived in San Diego for 8 years, and our kids have lived here all their lives. We've been to SeaWorld dozens of times, and have met numerous SeaWorld employees outside of the park. To say that it's a cornerstone of our community is an understatement. It's one of the first spots to come to mind when people think of San Diego, and readers email in questions about it on a weekly basis. There's actually a trapeze studio in our neighborhood where our family has trained with a few of the park's acrobatic performers. True story! In all that time, though, we'd never seen behind the scenes and really grasped the purpose of SeaWorld.

Last week, we got an incredible glimpse at the rescue program behind the entertainment.

Petting a penguin at SeaWorld SeaWorld invited us out for a private tour to meet with their staff, see the latest and greatest attractions, and get up-close and personal with some of the animals. We've actually been to quite a few events in San Diego where SeaWorld trainers have brought animals to educate the public about their environment and needs, but petting a penguin never gets old!

Seeing a dolphin at SeaWorld

Personally, I've always been fascinated by the dolphins. I was obsessed with Flipper as a kid. I've watched the performances at the parks a ton of times and learned that if you linger a bit and are one of the last people to exit the stadium, you have a pretty good chance of getting eye-to-eye with one of these impressive mammals.

Dolphin Encounter at SeaWorld San Diego

This time, we got even more than we bargained for! One of the trainers was kind enough to stay back with our group for a Dolphin Encounter so that we could get some one-on-one time and learn more about how these gentle creatures behave.

I was surprised to discover that there are actually some animals in the shows – including dolphins – who were moved over from the rescue program. While SeaWorld has a goal of rehabilitating every animal that it saves, some are unreleasable due to medical reasons that would put them in danger back out in the wild. In those cases, they find homes at other rescue centers or at SeaWorld itself, sometimes even performing in a show with fellow animals or filling other roles that help further a message of conservation.

Orcas at SeaWorld San Diego

Also out in the main park area, we saw the new Orca Encounter performance which featured an infinity screen playing a Discovery-channel-esque show explaining orca instincts in-depth. It detailed everything from their hunting patterns to their communication. Right in front of the screen, killer whales displayed these natural behaviors for the audience in real-time. This is as interactive as people are allowed to get with orcas these days, but guests who really want some hands-on time with a whale should definitely check out the Beluga Interaction.

SeaWorld Rescue team

After seeing the public side of the shows, we went behind closed doors to the Animal Care Center. I'll never forget the look in my oldest son's eyes as a rescue worker explained some of the many hazards to sea animals. Everything from nets to fishing hooks, plastic bags and soda cans all carelessly tossed out. Largely because of such damaging behavior by humans, SeaWorld San Diego is called to aid between 300-400 marine animals every year (including sea lions, seals, dolphins, whales, sea turtles and sea birds). Those efforts are directly funded by ticket purchases at the parks. To this day, all of the SeaWorld parks combined have rescued over 30,000 animals in the last 50 years – more than half of that due to SeaWorld San Diego's efforts alone!

Dolphin being rescued at SeaWorld San Diego

The boys were able to get literally nose-to-nose with some of the animals that were in the middle of the rescue process, including several dolphins (yay!) and a sea lion. One particular sea lion who was recently helped out by the program had pneumonia, and SeaWorld built a special machine to help him breathe. There were no nebulizers his size, but that's what he needed! That story really stuck with me, since a nebulizer was one of the many medical advancements that saved my son's life when he had RSV. We actually have one in our home now, to nip things in the bud when he has the occasional flare-up. The thought of that life saving machine not being readily-accessible definitely touches a soft spot in my heart. It makes me so happy to know that there's an organization out there with the knowledge, resources and expertise to provide things like that for animals in need.

Childhood education at SeaWorld Rescue

The kids are already begging to go back. We got to check out a few more recently-added attractions while we were at SeaWorld, including Ocean Explorer and its epic Submarine Quest ride. We'll be sharing more details about those highlights – and our other picks for little kids – in the next month or so.

Here are some of the best behind-the-scenes experiences at SeaWorld San Diego (including the opportunity to feed a dolphin and see their rescue program in action)