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Who’s Who?

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Animal Updates | Mammals | Volunteering

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Recognizing the Aquarium's Pinnipeds

To a wet-side volunteer like myself that spends a lot of time around them, the seals and sea lions of the Aquarium of the Pacific are as individual and recognizable as any of my close friends and relatives. However I’ve been reminded by a dry-side staffer that perhaps to guests and non marine mammal staff the pinnipeds may not be quite as recognizable to them. So this week’s blog is about how to tell our pinnipeds apart and, as a bit of an insight to them, how I tell them apart by their looks and personality.

We’ll start with the easiest of the six pinnipeds to recognize. He’s the biggest sea lion in the exhibit and also the only one sporting a very distinct sagittal crest. Parker, our young adult sea lion currently weighs in at over 600 pounds. His massive chest and long body clearly differentiates him from our other smaller sea lions. Although very large he hasn’t stopped growing yet. His daddy weighed in at nearly a thousand pounds and it is expected that Parker will get close to this weight when fully grown in a few years.

How do I recognize Parker? Parker is the Golden Lab of the exhibit. Always trying to please and eager to work with a trainer, he’s a fun animal to be around. He and I go way back. He was just a tiny pup when I first met and played with him back in the behind the scenes holding area. He still thinks he’s that little pup and doesn’t realize just how big he has gotten. He’s like an awkward teenager. The photo of Parker with his chin on my head and my hand on his neck that you’ve seen in this blog is one of my favorite shots I’ve ever taken with him. What most people don’t realize about that photo is that Parker doesn’t realize just how massive he is and is resting the full weight of his head on top my head. It took all my effort to hold still for the shot but it was worth it.

Currently the sea lion that I work with the most is Milo. Milo is my cameraman (Sea Lion-Cam) and Frisbee playmate. You can tell him apart by his streamlined and pointy muzzle and the lighter coloration to his fur compared to the other sea lions. When dry he has an almost silvery sheen to his fur. The animal that he’s most confused with is Harpo. Harpo and Milo are the same age and nearly the same size. However Harpo has darker fur and a more blunt muzzle. Even our trainers sometimes have moments where they’re not sure who is who.

How do I tell them apart? Well to me its more of a personality thing. While Milo gives you a direct look when coming to station, Harpo seems to use his peripheral vision to check out his surroundings. Milo seems to be concentrating on every little nuance of the actions of the trainer during a session. Harpo on the other hand seems to be concentrating on everything going on within his field of view in the exhibit. It seems like he wants to make sure he’s not missing something fun and interesting. To this old martial arts student, Milo’s gaze reminds me of a Samurai warrior analyzing a situation while the old film student in me sees Harpo’s gaze as reminiscent of his namesake, Harpo Marx. A bit on the wild yet fun loving side.

The harbor seals are probably the toughest animals in the exhibit to tell apart. However if you know what to look for you can tell who’s who.

Ellie is the easiest to distinguish. She is an Atlantic harbor seal. The spots on her fur are smaller than our two Pacific harbor seals, Troy and Shelby. She’s also a little smaller and sleeker looking.

From a casual look, Troy and Shelby seem identical. However Troy is the only male harbor seal. His forehead is squarer than the female Shelby who has a more rounded shape to her head. He is also the harbor seal most likely to have his whiskers flush with his muzzle. Shelby and Ellie each have a vision disability so they usually have their whiskers spread out to help them navigate and explore their world. The whiskers are highly sensitive to vibrations so they act like tactile antennas to movement in the water. Troy has excellent vision and tends to use his eyes as his main source of environmental input thus his whiskers are not spread as often. When swimming in the exhibit, he also tends to be Shelby’s shadow as he always seems to be following her around.

I’ve known Ellie and Shelby since my first day at the Aquarium back in 1998 so it’s easy for me to tell them apart. In my mind Ellie has a poker-face. During a training session her eyes are usually wide open like a female anime character but has a kind of unfocussed stare just like a poker player that does not want to give away her hand. She’s a highly intelligent animal and has been known to “train” unsuspecting new volunteers to do what she wants instead of vice-versa. She puts her poker face to good use. Shelby on the other hand has an innocent look to her. When her eyes are wide open and her whiskers spread wide she reminds me of the Shrek movie character “Puss in Boots” giving off his best cute look. It’s so darn adorable to look at.

Troy to me is easy to tell apart from the “girls”. He’s the seal that’s looking right at you when you’re working with him. Nothing escapes his gaze. He exerts a machismo personality that even Parker respects. Most trainers think that he’s actually the “Alpha” animal of the exhibit. He’s also the noisiest of the seals and will grunt when he want’s your attention.

The next time you’re at the Aquarium, take a few minutes and see how many of the pinniped you can recognize. Have fun!

Who’s Who?
The Aquarium's harbor seals from left to right: Troy, Ellie and Shelby. In this image you can easily see some of the characteristics that help staff and guest tell the seals apart. Shelby's rounded head, Ellie's smaller spots and Troys squarer forehead.  | Hugh Ryono
Who’s Who?
Mammalogist Kristen watches as Harpo and Milo go nose to nose. Milo's (on the right) lighter coloration and pointier nose helps distinguish him from Harpo.  | Hugh Ryono

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