Summer of the seals

Even with the memory of the dolphins still fresh in our minds, everyone at the zoo was at least a little excited when the zoo’s Hawaiian monk seal exhibit opened a few months ago, bringing the old dolphin pool back to life. Sure, the seals could never live up to the dolphins — what could? — but especially for volunteers stationed an hour or two each week in Discovery Bay, any life in that pool was welcome when it finally reopened after months of renovation. My expectations honestly weren’t that high. At least the seals would be interesting to talk about, if not as interesting to watch.

Minnesota Zoo Hawaiian monk seal

But now that their summer honeymoon period is over, I know that the seals are, in fact, both things — factually and visually engaging enough to help me reboot this blog after six months of dormancy. No matter how distracting life gets, I always gravitate back to the zoo. And zoo visitors have gravitated to the seals, with their torpedo-shaped bodies, powerful flippers and heavily whiskered faces. In a typical response, one woman exclaimed last week: “It’s so cute! It looks like a little old man!”

Hawaiian monk seal and zoo visitors

All five monk seals, which came to us via a facility in Texas, are female, 400-500 pounds and about 20 years old. All but one have limited vision, all were originally rescued as starving pups off the coast of Hawaii, and none could survive in the wild today. Unlike dolphins, the seals like to “haul out” of the water and rest, and their redesigned zoo habitat has small stretches of “beach” for that purpose. When they wriggle awkwardly onto “land” to during public feedings, a soft “aww” or fond giggle often rises from the audience.

Hawaiian monk seal feeding

At first, I didn’t think I’d memorize the five names, which are all short, similar, Hawaiian and full of vowels. With limited brain-space, a docent learns to prioritize, and only the most basic or compelling information — usually about the species, not the individual — joins the long-term memory bank. The seals look identical at first glance, anyway, and don’t interact with each other, since the species (unlike harbor seals) is naturally solitary. But it quickly became clear, week after week, that guests wanted to know the names, and also that the seals weren’t identical at all.

Ola the seal twirling

So far there are only two seals in the show pool at once (again, because they’re not very social — which is fine!). On my Thursdays so far, those two usually seem to be Ola, who has good vision and swims laps with a playful, twirling motion (I think that’s her above), and Koa, below, who doesn’t see well and floats vertically next to the glass. Often she seems to be watching the big TV screen for seal-related images and information. This cracks me up. In reality, she may be listening more than watching — seals have very good hearing, although they have no external ear flaps as sea lions do. This makes even our sight-impaired seals very trainable; they listen for their names and other cues. (The other seal duo that rotates in and out of the show pool is Paki and Opua. The fifth seal, Nani, has been happily hanging out by herself in the “west pool” so far.)

Koa the monk seal

There’s so much more to say about Hawaiian monk seals, and in months to come, I plan to say it. For now, it’s enough to note that these whiskery marine mammals aren’t just a post-dolphin placeholder. They’re fascinating in their own right.