#22: Fish Prep

A few weeks ago, you got a taste (so to speak) of the diets that we feed our seals at the Aquarium. But how do we prepare it all and how do we figure out how much food each animal needs? Here's how, young grasshoppers.

Each morning we arrive early, prepared to get down and dirty in sinks full of frozen fish and squid. All of the fish needs to be thawed in cold water. In the summertime it feels good being up to your elbows in frigid fishy water, in the winter you're lucky if you can feel your hands. After everything is thawed, each individual fish and squid gets inspected to insure the highest quality. If there are any cuts, scrapes, exploded eyeballs or other damages, it is considered no good and is not fed to the seals. Only the best for our animals!

Once the fish is thawed we weigh buckets of fish for the seals' training sessions. We have our seafood analyzed and know how many calories are in each pound of the 3 different options (herring, capelin and squid). Our seals typically eat between 2,000 and 6,000 calories per day depending on the animal and the season.

Seals can have food preferences just like people. For example, our oldest seal Smoke enjoys squid, while her son Reggae is not a fan. There are many factors that we take into account when calculating how much food an animal needs. We look at their weight, how much they ate in past years, and how eager they are to participate in training sessions.

It can be difficult to figure out the perfect amounts. There are no points to count, or Valerie Bertinelli to deliver pre-made meals. We don't want them to be too hungry, or on the flip side, too full that they would rather use their food as a toy than eat it.

By the end of our morning fish prep, we are well on our way to smelling like a fish and the animals are getting excited about their first training sessions. Bon appetit!




#21: True Seals

What are true seals? This is one of the commonly asked questions here at the New England Aquarium and I am here to answer it for all of you who, I know, are just dying to know. And the answer is ... drumroll please.................. NOTHING!

But my blog cannot and will not end with such a vague answer!

Sea lions are a type of seal that have external ear flaps, can rotate their hind flippers under their bodies and "walk" on land. They use long front flippers for swimming and standing, and have LOTS of blubber (or fat).

Our sea lion ladies, Zoe and Sierra. You can see their earflaps and upright posture here.

Fur seals look a lot like sea lions and have almost the same physical characteristics, except they don't have all that blubber to help keep them warm. They have, you guessed it, fur! Both sea lions and fur seals are in the same family and referred to as "eared seals."

Northern fur seals like Ursula have to groom frequently to get the most
warmth out of their fur coats.

True seals, sometimes referred to as "earless seals," are in another family. This includes all other seals except sea lions, fur seals, and walrus. True seals don't have external ear flaps, they use their hind flippers for swimming, they have a lot of blubber, and short front flippers so they slug around on land. Our Atlantic Harbor seals are examples of a true seals.

Atlantic harbor seals on the Front Plaza

When put side by side, you can really see the similarities and differences. Here at the New England Aquarium, we currently have Atlantic harbor seals and Northern fur seals and California sea lions.


#20: Mobile Seal

One of the most important aspects of our job as trainers is the training of husbandry behaviors. Husbandry behaviors are the behaviors that we use to take care of our marine mammal colony. A husbandry behavior can be something as simple as having the seal sit quietly while the trainer or veterinarian look them over to make sure they're in good condition. It might also be as involved as drawing blood, taking x-rays or performing an ultra sound. Having the seal enter a transport carrier is another example of a husbandry behavior. Doing so might be neccesary in order to move them to another part of the aquarium or to another facility entirely. Our three northern fur seals, Chainsaw, Ursula and Cordova are trained to enter a large kennel, turn around and allow the trainer to close the door. Behaviors like the kenneling that you see Chainsaw doing in this video are done regularly so they stay sharp in case we need them.



#19: Eye Drops

To make sure our seals are as healthy and comfortable as possible we sometimes need to administer different medications to them. Harbor seals are mammals and may develop some of the same health issues that people can. This picture shows Amelia receiving eye drops to reduce inflamation from a cataract in her left eye. Amelia is excellent at this behavior and keeps her eyes wide open so the drops get in on the first try.

- Rochelle



#18: Sleeping Seals

How do harbor seals sleep? How long can they hold their breath? The answers to these spine-tingling questions are the subject of today's marine mammal trainer's blog. Let's start with how the seals sleep.

In the photo you see Trumpet sleeping upside down while her hind flippers stick up like rabbit ears. This is not a common sleeping posture, but Trumpet must be on to something since her daughter Cayenne occasionally sleeps "flippers up" too.

Sleeping on the bottom of the exhibit are Reggae, in the foreground, and Cayenne against the wall in the back. Harbor seals can hold their breath for 20 minutes. As the seals sleep deeply, they just bob or roll a little in the wake of other seals swimming by. Alarmed visitors often go to the information desk to report in a whisper, "There is a dead seal in the exhibit. Just thought you should know." While the visitor is conscientiously reporting their findings to the staff, the sleeping seal rises to the surface for a couple of quick breaths before sinking slowly back to the bottom. This cycle can repeat itself for hours.

Seals can stay out of the water for hours, even days. Below, it's clear that Lana prefers her sleeping area extra firm.


- Jenny



#17: Smoke's 37th Birthday

The paparazzi was in full force at the harbor seal exhibit the other day when we celebrated Smoke's 37th birthday. Smoke is one of the oldest harbor seals in the country. Atlantic harbor seals typically live into their mid twenties, so 37 is quite a feat!

Smokey is not one for chocolate, so instead we made her a big fish "cake" with herring, capelin and some monster-sized squid. We put candles in the cake and Lana, Smoke's long-time buddy, helped blow them out.

Smoke did really well with all of the photographers and camera men surrounding her. With all of the cameras clicking away, you would've thought you were on a red carpet somewhere! Smoke certainly deserves all the attention.

You can view a video of the happy day here.




#16: Seal Kisses

Training a seal to kiss is fun and begins with "targeting." Targeting is asking a seal to touch a particular part of their body to an object. The object chosen can even be somebody's cheek! In this video you will see Ursula, a female Northern fur seal, giving smooches to Jamie, Jenny and YOU!



#15: Flipper Stand

Hi, my name is Cheryl. I am training Cordova, one of our Fur Seals, to do a front flipper stand. Cordova already knows some of the basic behaviors needed to do a flipper stand. She knows how to touch her nose or her front flippers to a bead at the end of a pole called a target. I am training her to touch her hind end to the target as well. In this video, she moved towards the target. The next step will be for her to reach towards the target, lifting her hind end off the ground. Check future blogs for our progress.

- Cheryl



#14: Seal Diets

What do the seals eat? It is a great question and one that gets asked a lot. At the NEAq, all of our seals are offered a combination of three foods, pictured above: herring (top), capelin (middle), and squid (bottom). Our fur seals eat mostly squid, with a little herring and capelin, while our harbor seals are the opposite; they eat mostly herring and capelin with a little squid. Regardless of their preferences, it takes a lot of food to keep our seals healthy. We are currently thawing approximately 80 lbs. of food every day!




#13: Seal Teeth

Let's see those pearly whites...or yellows, or blacks! Teeth. That is the word of the day. Here you can see three sets of teeth; Atlantic harbor seal teeth, Lindsay's teeth, and northern fur seal teeth. Can you guess which set of chompers belong to whom?

All seals have teeth, and they all vary from species to species. Humans have 32 teeth, pinnipeds (the scientific name for seals, sea lions and walrus) have an average of 34 to 38 . The seals' teeth are very sharp--even the molars! The reason that the molars aren't flat is because they don't chew their food like we do. They use those pointy teeth to grasp and shred fish that are too big to swallow whole.

Since seals can develop plaque build-up and gum disease just like people, we have trained all the harbor seals, and most of the fur seals, to allow us to brush their teeth. This is a very important husbandry behavior that we maintain every day. Be sure to check back for a blog on that in the near future!


(p.s. #1 is a harbor seal named Reggae, #2 is a northern fur seal named Ursula and #3 is me!)



#12: Nail Clipping

Now why would we clip a harbor seal's nails? It's not as if they have spas out in the ocean right? Seals naturally wear down their nails by scrabbling up onto the rocky shores along the coast. Here at the Aquarium they have much smoother surfaces that don't wear their nails down. This video is an example of an ongoing process to clip Trumpet's nails. She was very relaxed and easygoing about getting her nails done today but this is not always the case. Nail clipping is an example of a husbandry, or medical behavior, that we trainers continuously keep up so it can be an easy process. Just like the saying goes, "Practice makes perfect!"