If you’ve never heard of a ringed seal, prepare for your life to be changed for the better! Mine certainly was when I met these amazing marine mammals for the first time. Before I started at the Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC), I thought ringed seals were just another seal species. They’d probably be cute and have a lot of blubber, but they wouldn’t be nearly as charismatic as the much larger, louder Steller sea lions that also call the ASLC home. I’ve never been more wrong!
On my first day at the ASLC I walked up to the habitat where two of our ringed seals, Spencer and Taku, live and saw two pretty small seals. I knew they were young, so I assumed they must still be growing and asked how big they would be full grown. What I didn’t know was that they already were!
Ringed seals are the smallest species of seal on the planet! As I write this, Spencer and Taku respectively weigh 99 and 76 pounds. Being small isn’t the only thing that makes ringed seals unique. They are a type of seal that we call an “ice seal,” which means they are dependent on sea ice to complete their major life history events (like having offspring).
Ringed seals have evolved a pretty cool way to live within the ice. They have prominent nails on their front flippers that they use to dig through the ice to create breathing holes and to dig through snow and create subnivean (under the snow) caves to give birth to their pups. Ringed seal pups are susceptible to many predators, including polar bears, arctic foxes, and even gulls, so hiding in these special snow lairs is what enables them to grow up successfully!
Although our ringed seals don’t have to worry about polar bears, they still have a lot on their plate at the ASLC. Here, they are important ambassadors for their species. In fact, we believe that our Ice Seal Adventure encounter be the only behind-the-scenes ringed seal tour in the world!
Training Spencer and Taku during these programs is one of the most rewarding parts of my day. I love seeing guests’ faces light up when they realize just how small these guys are up close and teaching them why it is so important to address major environmental issues affecting their wild counterparts, like climate change.
Training ringed seals is unlike training any other species I’ve worked with.
Just today, I had a major break through while training a new behavior with Taku that he had previously been struggling with. All of a sudden he just understood what I wanted him to do and he did it! I was totally blown away.
While I could go on about why ringed seals are the best and the cutest of all the seal species on the planet, I’ll just leave you with one request:
If we can all work together to advocate for our climate, we can ensure ringed seals thrive. Even little things like turning lights off and carpooling to reduce your energy use make a difference! And if you’re ever in Seward, come visit the ASLC and you might just end up with a new favorite animal.
Written By Tess Brant, ASLC Husbandry/ Interpretation Specialist