Two seal pups made their grand debut at Moody Gardens on Wednesday, surviving harrowing ordeals before making their way to Texas.
The California-born seals, both about a year old, were rescued from the wild in northern California in 2017 and transferred to Moody Gardens earlier this year after being deemed non-releasable.
The two seals, named Tomato and Ravioli, are housed in the North Pacific Exhibit of the Aquarium Pyramid. They are the two newest members of the exhibit.
Tomato, the male pup, was mauled by a dog last year. He suffered bite wounds along his head and torso, and lost sight in one of his eyes.
“He didn’t have much time out in the wild to learn how to be a wild harbor seal,” Moody Gardens biologist Maggie Reynolds said. She has been working with the seals since before they moved to Moody Gardens.
Ravioli, the female seal, suffers from neurologic and vestibular problems, causing seizures and balance difficulties.
“She was actually born prematurely in March, which is unusual,” Reynolds said. “They really shouldn’t be born until June or so. When she was just a couple days old, some well-meaning humans picked her up because they thought she had been abandoned.”
Like Tomato, she never got the opportunity to learn the behaviors necessary to survive in the wild, Reynolds said. She suffers from several ticks that hinder her ability to walk on land and feed.
After they were rescued, both seals were taken to the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center in Crescent City, Calif, where they stayed until the move to Moody Gardens.
The center in California serves to rehabilitate animals to return to the wild, so the seals were not trained to interact with humans before coming to Moody Gardens. Once it was determined that they couldn’t be released back into the wild, the center began to look for new permanent homes for the seals.
“There is a list of people if you’re looking to house those animals, and they just sort of start at the top and go down. It’s also nice that they could get placed together,” Reynolds said. “They’ve been together almost their whole lives.”
The animals have grown accustomed to their new home, spending hours at a time swimming around the exhibit. They arrived at Moody Gardens earlier this year but were held in quarantine behind the scenes until their exhibit debut this week.
“They’re only about a year old, so they’re sort of soaking everything in,” she said. “They’ve been on the exhibit only 24 hours, and they’re really comfortable. They swam around for about 12 hours yesterday.”
The 70,000-gallon saltwater exhibit is “definitely the biggest space they’ve had” since they were rescued, Reynolds said. “It’s a lot to take in for them.” Several of the other animals in the exhibit were removed so the new seals wouldn’t be overwhelmed.
Along with Tomato and Ravioli in the exhibit is an older female sea lion named Squirt. She was born blind and has never shown a tendency toward violence, so Moody Gardens decided to keep her in the exhibit when it brought in the seal pups. Over the next several weeks, Moody Gardens will bring the three other animals back into the exhibit.
“Once that’s successful, staff will introduce the new seal pups to fellow harbor seals Siku and Porter, and California sea lion, Sam,” Diane Olsen, assistant curator of penguins and seals, said.
Four of the six animals in the seal exhibit are rehabilitation projects, Reynolds said.
“They’re just as smart as the others, and they can learn everything, we just have to learn how to teach them,” she said.
The handlers teach the animals various behaviors to feed them, examine their health and keep them occupied. Though it’s only been a few months, Tomato and Ravioli are learning quickly, Reynolds said.
“They’ve both got great stories, and they’ve adapted and done so well,” she said. “They’re resilient, just like humans are when we face difficulties.”