He and his wife, Sabina, were in Dublin Zoo yesterday to open the €3.7m Sea Lion Cove which has a deep saltwater pool and underground viewing area.
The sea lions have been in their new home for just a week and it was crystal clear that they love it.
Currently, there are three females, Cassie, Florence, and Seanna and one male, Nico, and it is hoped they will start breeding soon.
Zoo director, Leo Oosterweghel, said the sea lions are highly intelligent animals that need a lot of stimulation so the zoo has created a complex environment for them.
“Every detail of this wonderful saltwater habitat has been considered carefully with the needs of the sea lions in mind and always inspired by their natural habitat,” said Mr Oosterweghel.
The sea lions were oblivious to the crowds they had attracted and spent their time happily swimming upside down or torpedoing through the water.
The water is very deep in parts and shallow in others and there are lots of curly bits, obstacles and hiding places.
“The biggest attraction for the sea lions, believe it or not, is the underwater viewing area. We go there to watch them but they go there to watch us,” said Mr Oosterweghel.
The zoo hired Jones and Jones Architects in Seattle to design the new habitat for up to 10 animals and work on the cove started last September.
Mr Oosterwegel said construction took place on the site of a former lake so there were significant engineering challenges to be overcome.
He said the zoo, a not-for-profit organisation, had paid for the project from money it had saved over the years.
“It was a big investment but, hey, look what we have got,” said Mr Oosterwegel.
Asked why it was the first time President Higgins had officially visited the zoo, Mr Oosterwegel replied: “We had to wait until we had something really spectacular to celebrate.”
The zoo has attracted more than 1m visitors a year over the last four years, making it one of Ireland’s most popular visitor attractions.