#33: What's in a Name?

Some may think that "Chainsaw" is an unusual name for a fur seal, much less a female fur seal. The reason behind the moniker is pretty simple though. Chainsaw was a stranded seal, which means she was found on a beach and was unable to take care of herself. In her case she was a very young pup when she was brought in. While being rehabilitated, or nursed back to health, she had the tendency to vocalize or "talk." When she did this she sounded like "a chainsaw revving up" so the nickname stuck. This video will give you a little taste of her vocal abilities:




#32: Molting

The air is warm, the sun is bright and the faint (and sometimes not so faint) aroma of sunbathing harbor seals fills the air. Summer is molting season.

Warm and fuzzy

The harbor seals will lose their hair soon. No need for Rogaine or Propecia, though. Our seals will replace their lost hair on their own over a couple of weeks. Since the seals rely on their hair to protect their skin they need it to be in good condition, so their coat is replaced once a year.

Sunbathing beauties

During this time they tend to spend more time out of the water. We call this "hauling out." Sunbathing promotes more blood flow to the skin and allows for a quick replacement of healthy hair. While they are molting their appetite decreases and they often aren't their usual spunky selves. Growing all new hair is hard work! By the end of August all of our harbor seals will have new glossy coats appropriate for any herbal shampoo commercial.


#31: Flipper Stand part 2

[new video coming soon...]

There are many different ways to train a behavior. Often a combination of approaches is good. It depends on how you and the animal you are working with interact and what is comfortable for both. I started training Cordova's flipper stand by asking her to touch her hind end to a target. After many trials and very little movement, I decided to give her something to put her hind end on. This didn't work very well. I should note that a great deal of time had been devoted to her keeping her hind end still for voluntary blood draws and vaccinations. Another idea was to ask her up onto something. Asking her up onto a step worked. I was able to touch her hind end as it came up with the target and reinforce the upward movement, but she still wasn't offering the upward movement to the target without the step. Cordova is an animal who enjoys being touched. I am now actually picking her hind end up trying to get her to brace her front flippers and support her weight up on them.




#30: Voluntary Injection

During the course of the year our harbor seals and fur seals receive several vaccines. Training the seals to accept these injections voluntarily takes time and lots of patience. Watch the video of Amelia receiving her West Nile Virus vaccine and you'll see that the result of all that time and patience is an animal that deals with needles better than most people that I know, myself included.




#29: Seal Origins

A lot of people ask us, "how did you get your seals?" This is a great question and allows us to tell the stories and backgrounds of our animals here. Five of the seven harbor seals were born here at the aquarium; Amelia and Trumpet were born in 1985, Reggae and Cayenne in 1993, and Chacoda in 1995. Smoke and Lana came in as stranded pups from the coast of Maine in 1971 and 1982 respectively.

Most seals are nursed back to health and released. Sometimes stranded seals have medical issues, such as chronic ear infections, that would reduce their chance of survival after release. Others become too accustomed to people and can get in trouble by approaching people or their pets.

Three of the fur seals, Cordova, Ursula and Baranov were born at other aquariums. Chainsaw was found stranded as a pup off the coast of Washington.

Follow the links on each seal's name to see all the blog entries about each animal.




#28: Swimming With Seals

There is no doubt that marine mammals are adorable. They look so sweet and gentle; you just want to run up and give them a little squeeze. After all, what's the harm in walking up to a seal on the beach, or tossing a fish to a sea lion in the ocean? How about letting the dog play with one of them-they are playful, curious creatures, right? A lot of people are surprised to hear that it is dangerous for us and our pets to approach a wild seal. These animals have very sharp, bacteria covered teeth. Seals will bite if they are frightened, surrounded, cornered or sick. Seals can carry many different diseases such as rabies, that can be transferred to other mammals. More people are shocked when they hear that it is illegal in the US to come within 150 feet of a wild marine mammal, as stated in the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Harassing, feeding, touching, even swimming with wild seals puts THEM in danger. Observing these amazing creatures is an awesome experience, just be sure to do it from a distance.

If you see a seal that is injured or in distress, keep people and dogs away, then call your local aquarium. For more information about seal rescue, check out the Aquarium's Marine Animal Rescue Program.




#27: Turtle Training

Some may find it strange to see video of a turtle in the marine mammal blog, but the marine mammal staff has the opportunity to train a sea turtle as well. The principals of operant conditioning and positive reinforcement can work with any animal, as long as you learn what it is that they find rewarding. Myrtle, a green sea turtle, finds fish and Brussels sprouts absolutely fabulous! Myrtle is approximately 75 years old and has been at the aquarium almost as long as we've been open. We began by teaching Myrtle to "target" or touch a white PVC pipe, by putting it in front of her and rewarding her for touching it. From there, she learned to discriminate between a white pipe, a black pipe and a black and white striped pipe. She has been stellar at this, always choosing her white pipe when presented with a choice. Now we have moved on to sending her to search for her target around the tank. Her signal to start searching is a sound made by popping a smaller pole in the water and pulling it out. You can see me giving her the signal in this video:

Myrtle should hear the sound and then swim to her pole where another trainer will toss her a few pieces of fish or a prized Brussels sprout. Myrtle has proved very capable of this behavior and in this video you'll be able to see the finished behavior. Enjoy!




#26: Careers in Seals

Is anybody here a marine biologist?! The answer at the New England Aquarium is yes ... and no. Like George Costanza, many trainers are not marine biologists. The opposite is usually true too...most marine biologists are not marine mammal trainers. Simply put, marine biologists study ocean organisms. While it may be helpful to have a background in marine biology, it is not required to be a marine mammal trainer.

Jenny with Ursula

We're often asked how we got our jobs training marine mammals. While there is no clear path to the profession, there are many key things you can do to put yourself on the road to trainerdom. Most aquariums, including ours, require that you have a bachelor's degree, preferably in a science. Many trainers do have backgrounds in marine biology, but others have degrees in biology, animal behavior, ecology, zoology, or psychology. Psychology is especially helpful to understand how we train our animals using operant conditioning and positive reinforcement. A degree will only get you so far. Most of our learning occurs on the job. SCUBA certification is also required as we dive in our exhibits often for routine cleaning and maintenance.

One of the best ways to get a lot of experience is by volunteering or interning. Although there is no hands-on work with the animals, our volunteers and interns get a good taste of what it's like to be a trainer. They help prepare diets, make toys, conduct enrichment (play) sessions, and there's cleaning, cleaning, and more cleaning. If dish-pan hands that smell like fish are not your cup of tea, then you might get a rude awakening. It's not all glamorous, but for us working with the animals far outweighs the dirty work.

2 of our volunteers, Jamie and Cindy


#25: Trip to the Dentist

Everyone knows that going to the dentist on a regular basis is important for taking care of your teeth. But did you know that this is also true for animals? All of our seals have a dentist that they see on a regular basis, but they don't have to go to the dentist's office - the dentist comes to them!! Recently, Dr. Laura Levan came to the Aquarium to see how all of our seals were doing. In this video, she is taking a good look at Lana's teeth, with the help of Lana's trainer, Justin. Look Justin - no cavities!




#24: Baranov and Cordova

As we welcomed our newest addition, Baranov, to the northern fur seal exhibit, the size difference between male and female fur seals became VERY obvious. Male fur seals can reach a top weight of 600 pounds while females only weigh a maximum of 120. Check out the video to see the size difference for yourself. Baranov and Cordova have the same father so they are half siblings and the two seals are almost the same age. They certainly don't look like it!

Male fur seals have a thick layer of blubber underneath their skin. During the breeding season the males establish a territory on land so that they can attract females for breeding. Like the females, male fur seals rely on their thick coat of fur to stay warm. Unlike female fur seals, the males have thick blubber as a means of protection when other males challenge them for land space. The blubber also serves as a food source for the males when they are protecting their territory and are unable to go to the ocean to find food.



#23: Baranov

Big Man on Campus

Baranov, an 11 year old, 500-pound male northern fur seal, arrived at New England Aquarium on June 23, 2008. He's up from the Mystic Aquarium & Institute For Exploration (MAIFE) in Connecticut to spend the summer with us in Boston. How do you move a 500 pound fur seal? Insert your favorite cliche here ... very carefully ... any way he wants ... yada, yada, yada.

At 3:30 a.m., Baranov casually followed his trainer Sarah into his transport carrier. The carrier is a 5' x 7' x 5' aluminum structure with rails spaced close enough to safely contain him, but far enough apart that he can observe his surroundings. Bags of ice were placed on top of the carrier to keep him comfortable and he was carefully lifted via forklift into a large truck. Once inside, the carrier was belted in to give Baranov a nice, steady ride. Accompanying Baranov were two of his familiar trainers and his veterinarian. Seals can stay out of water for days if they remain cool. The truck had a powerful air conditioning unit to ensure the comfort of everyone. Well, perhaps Baranov was more comfortable. The humans emerged shivering, but smiling after the two hour ride.

The carrier was lifted from the truck and positioned next to an open door of the exhibit. Sarah led Baranov from the carrier into his summer home. He was a little tentative at first, but once he realized water was close by, out he went.

Baranov following Sarah's target
then checking out his new home.

The females, Chainsaw, Cordova and Ursula backed away a bit as the 500 pound blob (always a term of endearment when referring to seals) entered the water.

It took a short time for the girls to get nose to nose with Baranov. Sniffing and touching noses is the customary greeting among many species of seals. Since all four seals know each other from their time at MAIFE, the introduction was quick and easy.

Baranov was comfortable enough to eat within 15 minutes of entering the exhibit. Sarah stayed with us for four days to help with a smooth adjustment to his interim trainers. Baranov has indeed settled in as you can see below. It didn't take long for him to take his spot as king of the hill.

Hope to see you soon!