Picture this. You’re in the middle of your day analyzing animal behavior data. Your curator pulls you aside and tells you some very exciting news.

“You’re going to be primary on Reggae.”

Atlantic harbor seal Reggae
Reggae the Atlantic harbor seal

I was ecstatic! In trainer speak, she just told me that I will be Reggae’s trainer. Reggae is our 26-year-old, male Atlantic harbor seal. Each aquarium or zoo has a different policy on how their animals are trained. Here at the New England Aquarium, each seal or sea lion has two primary trainers. One primary trainer works Sunday through Wednesday (me!), and the other primary trainer works Wednesday through Saturday (my co-worker KP).

Atlantic harbor seal Reggae with trainers JP and Allison
Atlantic harbor seal Reggae with trainers KP and Allison, right

Building a Relationship 

Before you can start training any seal, you need to create a two-way, trusting relationship with them. I have to trust that Reggae won’t bite me, and Reggae has to trust that I won’t bite him. But the big question is: How do you build a relationship with a wild animal?

You pair yourself with something they like. Once I started to build my relationship with Reggae, I got to know his likes and dislikes. Weighing in at more than 200 pounds, Reggae is the largest and heaviest harbor seal we have at the New England Aquarium, so he definitely likes his fish. Every animal has its own food preference, just like we do as humans. He prefers herring over capelin and capelin over squid. His absolute favorite is herring that isn’t cut.

Atlantic harbor seal Reggae eats herring
Reggae eats some herring.

Once that relationship is solid, you can start taking on the important responsibilities of being a primary trainer. You wear many different hats as a trainer. You are a teacher, caretaker, doctor, and friend.

Teacher

In the simplest of definitions, training is teaching. Each behavior that you see our seals and sea lions do during their training sessions is something a trainer has taught them. Currently, I am teaching Reggae something called shape discrimination, which is where he will go to a specific shape every time, even if other shapes are present.

Atlantic harbor seal reggae works on shape discrimination with a trainer
Reggae and Allison are in the early stages of learning shape discrimination, so he is at the point where he is just learning to touch the blue circle.

Caretaker

Not only do I teach Reggae new behaviors, I also take care of him. I clip Reggae’s nails and brush his teeth.

Atlantic harbor seal Reggae gets his nails trimmed
Allison clips Reggae's nails.

I also give Reggae checkups on his health every day. I will have him lay out so I can take a peek at his entire body, do an eye exam, or check out inside of his mouth.

Atlantic harbor seal Reggae lays out
Reggae lays out for Allison so she can conduct a health check.

Friend

It is important to note that I am not just his trainer, I am his friend. We trust each other and provide a calm influence on each other, and I help him relax, if something startles him. We teach each other about animal behavior, enjoy doing things together, as well as just hanging out. I am starting to teach him new behaviors, which is very interesting for both of us.

Atlantic harbor seal Reggae kisses a trainer
Reggae kisses Allison.

Keep Your Distance

I am continuously building my relationship with Reggae every day. Although the seals at the Aquarium are comfortable around humans, this does not mean that seals in the wild are the same way. In fact, seals get spooked pretty easily by new things.

By law, all marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This act makes it illegal to approach a marine mammal in the wild, whether it is on land or in the water. People must stay at least the length of one football field (300 feet) away from any marine mammal at all times. Give these seals the space they deserve and keep your seal watching from afar via binoculars.

Using binoculars helps keep people a safe distance from the seals.

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