Seals and sea lions are mainstays of Oregon's marine mammal community. Sea lions can often be heard barking in Newport's Yaquina Bay, and harbor seals regularly ply the waters off the jetty. Both species are exhibited in the Aquarium's largest outdoor pool. The exhibit allows visitors to learn about these marine mammals' natural behaviors both from animal husbandry demonstrations and from Aquarium interpreters stationed at the exhibit.
The animals: Six sea lions and five harbor seals currently live at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Five of the sea lions and two of the harbor seals were captive born; one sea lion and three harbor seals were rescued and rehabilitated after beach strandings and they were considered nonreleasable.
The animals range from eight to 24 years old. All but one, a sea lion, are females. No breeding will take place among this population, since there is a surplus of seals and sea lions at zoos and aquariums around the country.
Visitors at this exhibit are often charmed to find that the animals are eager to interact with them through the underwater viewing windows. Games of follow-my-hand are common sights there, especially when children are present.
The exhibit: The main seal and sea lion pool holds 75,000 gallons of sea water. A total of roughly 2,400 gallons per minute, or about 3.5 million gallons per day, are filtered and recirculated in the exhibit.
The rocky pool is 15 feet deep at its deepest. It includes haul-out beaches and rocky islands where the animals can leave the water for areas that are either open to the viewing public or set behind the scenes. Deep canyons and a cave give the animals challenging swimming spaces.
Multiple vantage points offer the public both above-water and below-water views.
Every 45 minutes, all the exhibit's water runs through high-rate sand filters and an ozone filtration system. Water quality is monitored daily, and weekly bacteria counts are taken to ensure that bacteria levels are within stringent government guidelines.An additional holding pool in a non-public area behind the exhibit holds 17,000 gallons of seawater. This pool is used when the large pool is being cleaned or maintained, and for wellness care, medical attention and special feedings.
The care received: Diet—The seal and sea lions' diet consists exclusively of fresh-frozen food fit for human consumption and includes squid, capelin and herring.
Medical and wellness care—Routine wellness care and medical checkups during weekly rounds by veterinarians are provided on site.
Marine mammal enrichment program—This innovative program combines environmental enrichment devices (toys) such as reinforced rubber hoses, plastic Frisbees, kelp and other items as well as human interaction, to keep these curious animals mentally as well as physically fit. Keeping the Aquarium’s animals engaged and healthy is an important aspect of animal care. To help provide a stimulating environment, diverse enrichment devices are given to the animals.
Boat bumpers, buoys, a whirly hose, a children’s play gym and even beer kegs are added to the exhibits to make them more interactive. Frequently toys placed behind the scenes are retrieved by curious sea lions and then pushed around the pool. The Aquarium’s animal staff randomly rotates the toys in and out of the exhibit, so the animals don’t become bored with them. It is important to make sure the toys are always fun and exciting.
Individual and corporate support: Financial and in-kind support is vital for the success of the marine mammal enrichment program. Donated items must be new. Durable pet toys such as Nylabones, Kongs, balls and chew toys of various shapes and sizes are needed to help stimulate the senses of the seals and sea lions. Strong, durable floor matting is needed for the animals to scratch and rub against. Children’s toys such as toddler activity centers, push toys, play wagons or carts, large winter sleds, sand buckets and basketballs—all made entirely of heavy duty plastic or rubber—are also needed for the animals to push and manipulate.
Rehabilitation: Four fur seal pups, members of a threatened species, have been successfully rehabilitated at the Oregon Coast Aquarium as part of its conservation program and partnership in the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Marine Mammal Stranding Network. One seal was deemed nonreleasable and now lives at the New York Center for Wildlife Conservation. The other three were released back to the wild.
About seals and sea lions: Seals and sea lions are related, but are easily distinguished from one another by several features. True seals such as harbor seals, have no visible ear flaps; they're sometimes called earless seals. Their bodies are sausage shaped and their flippers are short and stubby. Seals are most at home in the water, where they swim strongly with a side-to-side motion of their rear flippers, or bob silently, eyes and nose only showing above the surface. On land they crawl along on their bellies over rocks and sand. Sea lions, sometimes known as eared seals, have small external ear flaps. They walk about on all fours on land and use their broad, strong, front flippers to propel themselves under water. California sea lions have a loud, doglike bark.