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!
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). 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."
You can see the ear flaps and upright posture of Guthrie, a male sea lion:
and Cordova, a female Northern fur seal:
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. Chaconda, one of our male Atlantic Harbor Seals, is an example of a true seal:
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.
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.
Seals can stay out of the water for hours, even days. Below, it's clear that Lana prefers her sleeping area extra firm.
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.
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!
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!
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!)