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Diving | Volunteering | Mammals

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Some of my fondest memories of volunteering at the Aquarium of the Pacific come from the impromptu enrichment swims that we use to do in the Seal and Sea Lion Exhibit. Back in the days when we had only two presentations on Saturdays and had more informal time to spend working with our animals we would plan out some fun enrichment sessions for the seals and sea lions. One of these was to spend time swimming in the exhibit with them.

Donning the wetsuits we used to clean the exhibit’s windows and rocks, instead of brushes we would have flippers, masks and snorkels. Normally the seals and sea lions have learned to ignore the scuba divers that enter the water to clean the bottom of the exhibit. The scuba equipped divers were down there to work and the pinnipeds were basically trained that this was not play time. However when we would go in with our snorkeling gear the sea lions would recognize us and swim by for a closer look. One of the neatest experiences I’ve ever had was floating in the water nose to nose with a sea lion only inches away from my mask as we both lazily bobbed just under the surface with the critter looking upon me with a gaze of familiarity that only comes from years of working with an animal. These sessions helped increase the bond that we had with the sea lions, allowing us to further the feeling of trust between animal and trainer. That trust is important in marine mammal training as it puts trainer and critter on the same team working for the same goals. These swims also acted as enrichment for the animals. An activity that is stimulating and fun for the sea lions to experience.

We used various types of enrichment sessions over the years such as giving different types of toys and ice treats. One activity that seemed to be a lot of fun for both the animals and trainers was when we had what we would call an innovation session. This session is like a normal training session except that the sea lion is the one coming up with the new behaviors to perform. In an innovation session an animal is reinforced (given a whistle bridge and a fish reward) when it comes up with a new behavior on its own. This has to be something it hasn’t done before or something done in a different way. A sea lion might be bridged for touching a raft with its nose. It then has to come up with something new like perhaps touching the raft with a flipper or maybe doing something totally different like tossing a ball in the air. It’s up to the critter to be creative and it really stimulates their minds. We only did this a couple of times but it was really neat to watch them as they scurried about trying to come up with new ideas to try.

The underwater viewing tunnel that runs through the pinniped exhibit is one of my favorite places in the Aquarium. You can get a good look at our seals and sea lions swimming beneath the surface of the water while staying dry yourself. Sometimes guests are surprised when a seal or sea lion that they were watching swim in the front part of the exhibit suddenly disappears underneath them and reappears behind them in the back part of the exhibit. They didn’t realize that the two areas are connected by a pair of underwater pathways that run beneath the viewing tunnel. On the right you can see a picture of Shelby the harbor seal taking the pathway. The photo was a lot harder to get than you might think. Realize that I was in a buoyant wetsuit with no weight belt, equipped with only snorkel gear and the tunnel is about 18 feet below the surface. For a scuba diver with weights or a sea lion it’s an easy dive. For me it was quite the effort to get that deep. Despite kicking my fins vigorously all the way down I only made a very slow descent towards the bottom, all the while trying to clear my ears and aiming my camera, all on a single rapidly depleting gulp of air. I also had the company of one of our sea lions on the way down and I could swear the critter was giving me a smirk. According to the dictionary, a smirk is “an insolent smile expressing feelings such as superiority and self-satisfaction”. Yup, that pretty much describes the look that I interpreted the animal was giving me. Of course it could just have been my realization at the time that sea lions are much more adapted to this underwater stuff than I am. To them I must have looked quite ridiculous.

The next time you’re watching our seals and sea lions from the tunnel take a second to realize that the animals can see you just as well as you can see them through the glass. I know that the first time I looked through the glass from the water side I was amazed at how clearly you could see all the people in the tunnel. So feel free to give our sea lions and seals a smile and a wave as they swim pass, they just might see it and come by the glass for a visit!

Miller the sea lion checks out two volunteer trainers, Linda and Hugh, with Shelby the harbor seal in the background.  | Lisa Halstead
Shelby the harbor seal swims through the pathway underneath the viewing tunnel.  | Hugh Ryono
A sea lion passes next to the underwater viewing tunnel. If you look closely, it almost seems like the sea lion has a smirk on its face! An acknowledgement perhaps of the underwater ineptness of the volunteer taking the picture.  | Hugh Ryono

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