New England Aquarium Seals

February 22, 2009 — One expects a kiss on Valentine’s Day, and I got mine this year...I just wasn’t expecting the girl to have a moustache more glorious than Frank Zappa.

Her name was Lana, she had big brown eyes, breath that reeked of dead fish...and she was an Atlantic harbor seal, one of seven at the New England Aquarium in downtown Boston, MA.

I was making out with her as part of a “Trainer for the Morning” program that the aquarium offers and in which my wife had enrolled me as a Christmas gift. For the program, a group of up to three people shadow New England Aquarium trainers around behind the scenes, interacting with various animals and in general just seeing what it’s like on the other side of the tanks (lots of plumbing, in case you want the short of it).

For our day, we had exactly three people. Myself, my wife (who always seems to buy me presents that she also gets to enjoy), and a nine-year-old boy named Tyler whose mother had enrolled him in the program as a birthday present. It came as no surprise to me that I shared a wish list in common with a nine-year-old boy.

Standing in the lobby of the aquarium at 8:30 in the morning, our “Guest of the New England Aquarium” stickers freshly slapped onto our coats, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My wife and I had already postponed our original reservation date due to sub-freezing temperatures because, well, we didn’t want our subs to freeze. And since the seal tank, which is a big part of the experience, is outdoors and roofless, it was a reasonable consideration and not just random pansyness, although I have been doctor-diagnosed with that, as well.

The trainer introduced herself as Belinda, and she gave us a quick rundown of our schedule for the morning. Every program is different, depending on which animals drew the short straw that day for amusing humans. The exception to that is the seals, who are agenda perennials and, I guess, suckers for attention.

First on our own agenda was to feed and interact with those seals. We were taken straight out to them, which was easing us in, no boring videos, no overly cautious training sessions. Just straight to seals...which is my newest phrase for getting right into something (“We didn’t even wait for the rest our party to arrive at the restaurant, we just went straight to seals and ordered dinner.”). I guess I’m going to need your help for that one to catch on.

We followed Belinda through a back hallway, waited while she affixed a couple of buckets of raw fish and squid to her belt in a way that seemed to communicate that it was more of a fashion statement for her than a practical arrangement, and then exited out onto a rocky ledge inside the seal tank.

The New England Aquarium Atlantic harbor seal tank is a 42,000-gallon open air tank set up as a free exhibit on the public concourse in front of the aquarium proper. The water is about 12 feet at its deepest end and is interspersed with rocky outcroppings for the seals to sun themselves on and the trainers to gingerly walk across during training sessions.

So what all that means for anybody that happens to be inside the tank is that not only do you get to do a cool thing, you get to do a cool thing in front of an audience. Although you really don’t notice the spectators outside the plexiglass too much because all your attention is focused on the antics of the mottled blubber torpedoes that call the place home.

We were instructed by the trainer to kneel at the edge of the water, while she called two of the seven seals over, Lana and Smoke. Trainers at the other end of the tank interacted with the other five. Each animal has a target, often a ball on the end of a stick, which they’re trained to come to when they see it. Once the trainer has their attention, the seals are put through a series of low-intensity training exercises and individualized attention such as tooth care, and, in the case of Smoke, eye drops for her cataracts.

The trainer instructed us on a few verbal commands, which we gave to the seals, who seemed to follow them easily despite the fact that I chose to give mine in a Mr. T voice. The seals saluted, blew bubbles in the water, vocalized, covered their eyes in mock shame, opened their mouths, allowed us to hold their chins, splashed on command, and, of course, planted kisses. As to this latter, I’ve experienced a couple exotic animal interactions, and the trainers and caretakers always encourage interspecies affection like that. I’m not sure why, but who am I to balk when someone in an officially logo’d outfit tells me to put sensitive parts of my body on random creatures?

The seals didn’t seem to be curious about either us or the trainers, honestly...just well trained and way into dead fish. Still, it was fun to be so close to them for such long periods of time and to watch them earnestly obey commands like a dog who knows you’re within arm’s reach of the Snausages in the cabinet. My favorite behavior that they exhibited while I was there was that they’d often poke their canine heads out of the water like periscopes, blink the water out of the gigantic dark orbs of their eyes, bob around a little, and then dive back underwater. I'd say more about them at this point, but I don’t want to waste all my Darwin-worthy animal insights here, because we got to revisit the harbor seals at the end of our program.

Next, Belinda took us back behind the scenes of some of the individual aquariums. The New England Aquarium is basically one giant four-story tall ocean tank around which a cement walkway spirals. However, in the outside walls of the landings of this spiral are a bunch of individual tanks housing everything from jellyfish to sea dragons. Of course, from the back, these beautiful and exotic tanks look like so many basement sinks, albeit very expensive basement sinks.

The next species we got to prod into our bidding was a three-foot-long African lungfish, so named because of its ability to breathe air (Africans are known for that), an adaptation that comes in handy in those prone-to-drought freshwater pools and rivers across the Dark Continent. This lungfish was named Mamma Jamma. It was gray, eel-ish, and had four tendril-like fins that didn’t look like fins at all. They looked like tendrils.

M.J. had a target as well, which we dipped into the water until the lungfish came to it (more like attacked it) and was rewarded for the attention with a shrimp on a stick. Then we watched Belinda try to get it to go through a PVC tube, which it actually did at one point, although probably not because it was being asked to. Belinda admitted that she wasn’t sure what the success rate for training lungfish is, but, being a trainer, it’s her job to train things. We then peeked into a couple other aquariums and terrariums behind the scenes, included a quick feeding session with a fist-sized turtle named Killer.

After that, we were handed off to another animal trainer named Paul. Paul’s most obvious feature was the five-foot anaconda draped over his arm. Its name was Marion, and it was only a year old, meaning it was small for an anaconda, which often grow to horror-movie-worthy sizes.

Paul led us through a bunch of offices into a small x-ray room that had a horizontal bed-table, on which he laid the snake. He explained that snakes rarely assume a straight posture, which, coincidentally, was the exact posture needed to x-ray a snake. As a result, he was trying to train the anaconda to sit still inside a straight clear plastic tube, forcing the snake to assume the desired position.

He was also hoping to multipurpose this tube training for an eventual program at a school for the blind where students would get the chance to feel what a snake looked like without worrying about the toothy end. He was using us as the proverbial guinea pigs for the endeavor. I’m pretty sure anacondas eat guinea pigs. His idea for the blind school might sound weird, but snakes do have one of the most tactilely interesting skins. Of course, I might be a little biased on this point, as I’m fascinated by these creatures to such a degree that I’m sure I will one day be killed by one.

After our anaconda encounter, we were passed off to Patty, another trainer. She was tasked with taking us back into the seal tank to interact with more seals in a new way. The fact that you get the highlight of the “Trainer for a Morning” program twice is a great idea. We certainly weren’t satiated after only one session with the seals.

This time our seal assignments were named Reggae and Cayenne. Reggae was obliging enough to roll over and let us stroke his underbelly. His coat felt soft, wet, and spongy if you stroked it one way, and then bristly if you went against the grain. We were given chunks of ice with fish and toys embedded in them that were connected to leashes of sorts made from the stout material of car wash curtains. We fished with these to give the seals something to play with. Then Patty gave us a water hose, and we played a game of riot police with the seals.

And that’s about when the credits rolled. The two and a half hours went by fast, and the trainers we met couldn’t have made the event more pleasant. I say that because it kind of surprised us. We figured our guides would either be annoyed at being forced by upper management to let rabble impinge on their daily routine, condescending by dint of the fortune of their cool profession, or just bored by the routine of showing non-animals around. Instead, we found all three of our guides to be (or at least seem, which is close enough in my book) genuinely excited and eager to get the opportunity share their time, individual projects, and love for animals to people who are, admittedly, suitably impressed by it all.

Included in the cost of the program is a ticket to the aquarium itself. The program ended at noon, so we spent some time there afterwards. It’s an amazing place, but, unfortunately, due to the day and time and the fact that the aquarium is highly baby stroller accessible, it was crowded almost to the point of unenjoyability.

Of course, that might also have been in contrast to the individualized attention we’d been lavished with for the past couple of hours. I’d post pictures of the aquarium itself, which has everything from sharks and sea turtles to moray eels and manta rays all swimming together, but the batteries in our camera went dead after the previous two and a half hours of constant use.

Plus the memory card was full of seals.

Update: Eventaully revisited the aquarium with a fully charged camera. Here's the photo essay.