Over this past week, The Maritime Aquarium’s harbor seal trainers have been working on making Orange the seal feel comfortable about leaving the exhibit.
She’s not going anywhere in particular. All of our seals are being trained to leave the exhibit, in part to give visitors the chance to get even closer to some of their favorite animals.
Several of the seals will scoot all the way across the main hall if you let them! But for now, Orange is a bit more timid. So far, she can confidently leave the exhibit, but is most comfortable staying nearby.
The seal trainers are not working on this skill just so visitors can get an even closer look, though. Having the seals get accustomed to being outside of their exhibit is important for veterinary or evacuation purposes as well, benefiting the safety of both the trainers and the animals.
To teach this new behavior, trainers are using the same methods to motivate the seals as they do to encourage their many entertaining and natural behaviors – like spinning, “shark” impressions and “kissing” – that visitors get such a kick out of during the daily seal feedings.
Training with any behavior all starts with “targeting,” which is a form of conditioning through positive reinforcement.
Orange had already been trained to target to – or hold her nose against – her trainer’s hand. To get her to leave the exhibit, Orange targets and follows her trainer, scooting out of the door. Motivated by constant vocal positive reinforcement (“good!”) and lots of fishy treats, Orange slowly but surely is getting used to leaving the comfort of the seal pool.
Watch Orange work on leaving the exhibit in this clip from one of this week’s training sessions (she even throws in an belly roll in the middle):
Training sessions sometimes follow their daily public feedings. If you’re lucky, you may get even closer with a seal than you expected!