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Seals Are the Stars in The Maritime Aquarium's New "Pinniped Cove"

NORWALK, CT  –  With the June 8 opening of “Pinniped Cove,” the harbor seals in The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk now have an enormous, state-of-the-art habitat – and enhanced quality care.

The Maritime Aquarium displays five female harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), the species of seal that commonly migrate into Long Island Sound each winter. Their new home is a 160,000-gallon habitat that is 22 feet deep at its deepest point. It’s more than eight times larger than their original 19,000-gallon exhibit, where they lived from 1988-2019. (It’s also more than one-third larger than The Maritime Aquarium’s signature 110,000-gallon, 18-foot-deep shark exhibit.) 

Barrett Christie, the Aquarium’s director of Animal Husbandry, said “Pinniped Cove” is one of the best and largest displays devoted to harbor seals in the U.S. 

“As excellent as the exhibit will appear to our guests, it’s equally as excellent behind-the-scenes for the seals’ daily and potential advanced care,” Christie said. 

The seals’ huge new habitat includes two separate areas for “hauling out” to rest, a large feeding area that slopes into the water for easy seal access, and rocky underwater columns and niches for exploring and napping. (Harbor seals can hold their breath underwater for 30 minutes.) 

Guests will be able to view the seals from three sides and two levels: underwater, through floor-to-ceiling windows on the first floor; and above the surface on the second floor. Plus, feedings and training demonstrations will be open to guest viewing three times each day, with occasional “keeper talks” offered as well. 

Behind the scenes, “Pinniped Cove” features: 

•  a state-of-the-art life-support system to maintain water quality, where constant filtering cleans and sanitizes all 160,000 gallons every 66 minutes. 

•  an adjacent new room for preparing the seals’ food, vitamins and nutritional supplements. 

•  an adjacent veterinary clinic equipped with state-of-the-art surgical and treatment facilities. 

•  and three small pools where a seal (or seals) can be isolated for treatment or post-op care, if needed. 

Christie noted that all of the Aquarium’s seals are more than 30 years old, beyond the median lifespan – about 25 years – of a seal in the wild. 

“Our seals’ ages speak to the quality care that they have received in the decades that they have lived at The Maritime Aquarium,” Christie said. “To the credit of our Animal Husbandry and veterinary staff, much of that care has taken place in a facility that was current when it was built 33 years ago. 'Pinniped Cove’ updates our facilities to ensure we can provide the highest standard of care for the next 30 years.” 

The Maritime Aquarium’s seals are: 

•  Ariel – Born in 1990 at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Lived at The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago from 1991 to 2005, when she came to The Maritime Aquarium. 

•  Leila – Rescued as an abandoned pup in Maine in 1988. Has been at The Maritime Aquarium since its opening in 1988. 

•  Polly – Born in 1987 at Mystic Aquarium, and came to The Maritime Aquarium in 1994. 

•  Rasal – Rescued as an abandoned pup in Maine in 1985 and rehabilitated at the New England Aquarium in Boston. Like Ariel, she lived at The Shedd Aquarium from 1991 to 2005, when she came to Norwalk. 

•  and Tillie – Born at Mystic Aquarium in 1986 and came to The Maritime Aquarium for its opening in 1988. 

Two other Aquarium seals have a permanent place in the exhibit. The ashes of Susie, who died in 2016 at age 43, and of Orange, who died in 2018 at age 35, are both worked into the exhibit’s fabricated-concrete rock work. 

Christie said the larger seal exhibit gives The Maritime Aquarium the opportunity to eventually welcome more seals, although no additions currently are planned. 

“Pinniped Cove” is named for the scientific grouping pinnipedia that includes all seals, sea lions and walruses. The exhibit celebrates seals as a conservation success story, through graphic displays that explain how their populations have rebounded greatly in New England since passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. Guests also will learn about seal physiology and their role in the marine ecosystem. 

“Even the name ‘Pinniped Cove’ underscores a novel approach to our longstanding mission,” said Jason Patlis, the Aquarium’s president and CEO. “Very few guests will likely know what a pinniped is when they enter the Aquarium, but the harbor seals will not be hard to find, and everyone will know what a pinniped is when they leave the Aquarium. And that’s our goal: to have guests excited to come visit, but inspired to learn while they are here.” 

Construction of the seal exhibit – as well as a 4D theater that opened in January – represent a unique collaborative effort by the State of Connecticut, the City of Norwalk, and the Aquarium to address the impacts of the coming replacement of the Walk Bridge, a 125-year-old railroad bridge adjacent to the Aquarium. The Walk Bridge Project requires razing the Aquarium’s former IMAX Theater and replacing the original indoor-outdoor seal habitat, so that the seals – and Aquarium guests – can have a secure, indoor habitat protected from the construction, just yards away. The State provided $40 million in funding, and the City managed the capital construction project for the Aquarium, to compensate for the loss of those signature assets. 

Learn more about the Aquarium’s exhibits, programs and public cruises this summer at 

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Posted by Brianne Faust at 4:44 PM
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