Aquarium hopes seals help kid obesity

June 30, 2009 11:35:02 AM PDT
Yes, he's obsessed with grooming, and he occasionally barks at you, but in most ways Isaac is not your typical fitness instructor. He weighs in at 350, eats 16 pounds of food at a time and he's only 9 years old. And he's a seal. Isaac is one of five northern fur seals to be featured in a new exhibit at the New England Aquarium that aims to entice an increasingly obese generation of kids to get moving.

The seals twist, stretch, leap out of the water, run on their flippers and shoot like missiles under and between the fiberglass rocks. Isaac even stands on his head. The "Move It!" program at the New Balance Foundation Marine Mammal Center, which opens Wednesday, uses the seals' athleticism as an example for children.

"Those marine animals will do things that are jaw-dropping at times," said Tony LaCasse, an aquarium spokesman. "We wanted kids to be inspired by them."

The seals will dart around an open-air space in the $10 million center, built at the back of the aquarium on Boston Harbor.

The animals are rarely this close to the Atlantic. They live in the Pacific from Southern California to Japan, and north to the Bering Sea. Males grow to up to 7 feet long and 600 pounds, while females are about 5 feet and 110 pounds.

The seals are considered depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and a big reason is the hunters who pursued its pelt - two layers thick and stuffed with 300,000 hairs per square inch. The pelt demands constant grooming, and the seals attend to themselves in an endearing way, contorting their bodies so their long flippers can get the job done.

Kathy Streeter, the aquarium's marine mammals curator, calls the northern fur seal a "Dr. Seuss animal" - a quirky combination of a sea otter and sea lion. It has ears, unlike the harbor seals common around Boston, has a distinctive bark and can prop itself up on its long flippers to look at visitors face to face.

That charisma, plus its story as a hunted and scarce animal, made it a good choice for a marine mammal center that seeks to help people relate to ocean life, Streeter said.

"They help give people a perspective on how the ocean affects everybody," she said.

The center opening is a sign of health at the aquarium three years after it regained its accreditation after repairing shaky finances. The accreditation was pulled in 2003 by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums after financial struggles and layoffs followed two major expansions in the late 1990s.

The new center's childhood fitness push comes as statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate 32 percent of American kids ages 2 to 19 are overweight, including 17 percent who are obese.

Panels around the aquarium will show seal moves like stretching, jumping and swimming, explain the ways the moves are similar to humans and encourage kids to "Try It!"

A guide that visitors get with their tickets includes more exhortations to move like the seals, and also eat some of the healthy fish they devour. In the center itself, the seals will perform stretches and moves with trainers, and some kids will be allowed into the shallow end of the seals' swimming area to exercise with them.

Paul Boyle, an environmental biologist and a vice president at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said that other institutions have pushed programs that get kids engaged outdoors, but that tying seal moves to kid fitness was unique and innovative. He added that the center has a strong draw in the sleek, engaging fur seals - though attendance will ultimately be a measure of just how strong.

Figuring out whether the seals can inspire fitness is a tougher task, but Boyle didn't see it as much of a stretch.

"You can almost see a child in front of the exhibit, gyrating, trying to mimic the seal and saying, 'Well this is pretty cool,"' he said. "Then they go home and they may roll around in the backyard and then they may start to, you know ... run."