Southwestern trek for aquarium's seals

Transfer: Last of the marine mammals are headed for New Mexico as their pool is closed.

May 19, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Ike the gray seal - that big, horse-faced critter who has greeted (or ignored) visitors to the National Aquarium in Baltimore since it opened in 1981 - is retiring to Albuquerque, N.M., tomorrow, at the age of 30.

Flying with him on a chartered DC-9 FedEx cargo jet will be his mate, Lady, and two smaller harbor seals. They are the last of nine residents of the aquarium's seal pool shipped away to new homes since 2000.

The popular pier-side pool, which has always been accessible for free, is being closed to make way for aquarium expansion on Pier 3, due to start in the fall. A larger seal pool will be built elsewhere, but not before 2007.

For Ike and Lady, Danny and Luciver, it's a final farewell.

"At their age, we're not looking to bring them back," said marine mammal curator Chris DeAngelo. She knows of no captive male gray seals older than Ike. Lady, noted for her unladylike howling, is 28, and the two harbor seals are 22 and 25 - also long in the tooth for their species.

For aquarium staffers who have worked with the seals - most with less seniority than Ike and Lady - it is a difficult time.

"The staff are very sad that they're leaving," DeAngelo said. "We take care of these animals seven days a week, year-round. They're very caring of the animals, and attached to them."

At a farewell party thrown last week for more than 30 staff and volunteers, there were plenty of Ike and Lady stories, and old videos, DeAngelo said. "I don't think there was a dry eye in the place."

Just days before their planned cross-country flight, Ike, Lady, Danny and Luciver were sleeping or lolling about in the bare, windowless, blue-green holding room behind the seal pool. It's a refuge they seem to prefer, and where their keepers expect they'll hang out until their move.

Except for the occasional dip in the room's small tank, they looked as sleepy and mellow as they always seemed in public.

"They're going to be missed," said Joseph R. Geraci, the aquarium's director of biological programs. But they're moving to "a much richer environment."

The seals will join five California sea lions and one harbor seal at the Rio Grande Zoo, part of the Albuquerque Biological Park. The 348,000-gallon seal pool there is five times the size of Baltimore's, but not nearly as famous.

Baltimore's seal pool made international news in 1981 when then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer jumped in, dressed in a Gay Nineties swimsuit and clutching a rubber duck. He was making good on a vow to take the plunge if the aquarium opened late. It was five weeks behind schedule.

In the nearly 21 years since, visitors and passers-by have watched countless seal feedings, asked trainers endless questions and, despite prominent warnings, dropped a long list of possessions - glasses, cameras, and once even a baby - into the water. "They always bring it to our attention," Geraci said. "It didn't affect the seals."

When it's all over, tomorrow's move will have cost the aquarium about $200,000, said spokeswoman Andrea Butler. That includes the $27,000 charter flight from Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Planning for the pool's closing started two years ago, when Geraci and his curators began looking for zoos or aquariums that met National Aquarium standards, and were willing to take the more elderly animals on a permanent basis. "Altogether we looked at over 80," Geraci said.

Aquarium curators insisted on keeping Ike and Lady together. Although the pair have never produced offspring, they have tried mightily in their 19 years together.

Since November 2000, the aquarium has sent two harbor seals to the Aquarium of Niagara Falls. Two more were trucked to Atlantis Marine World in Riverhead, N.Y., after getting lost briefly in Manhattan. Another went to the Indianapolis Zoo.

Before moving its last four seals to Albuquerque, the National Aquarium paid for two major alterations. The zoo is gradually converting the freshwater pool to salt water, and installed machinery that is cooling the water from a tropical 84 degrees in summer, to a more comfortable (for seals) 60 degrees.

"Their sea lions are able to tolerate a warm climate," Geraci said. "But gray seals live at the cold end of the range for seals."

For its part, the zoo has spent $50,000 on a sunshade over part of the pool, and a new, lower haul-out ledge to accommodate the big grays.

The large seals are "something citizens here have never seen before," said Ray Darnell, director of the Biological Park.

Albuquerque staffers have spent two weeks in Baltimore getting to know the animals. Baltimore staff will spend two weeks or more in New Mexico after the move to make sure the seals are adjusting, DeAngelo said.

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