“No words can describe the feeling that is left after meeting a living nerpa (Baikal Seal) somewhere in a quiet bay or near Ushkany Islands. The trustful, open look of the seal’s big clever eyes will charm everyone. For hours the animals can bask in the sun playing with their kin.”
Then there is this:
These Baikal seals, while not endangered, are unique in that they are the only fully fresh water pinniped species known to exist. They are fascinating animals in their own right, yet it is this show that brings them and the Aquatic Park in Irkutsk, Russia notoriety…no doubt you will laugh out loud at the absurdity.
According to the aquarium:
A pair of seals joined the entire Russian nation in the annual celebration of Victory in Europe Day, or VE Day, on May 8. This year, 2015, two seals staged a show wearing military outfits and holding toy weapons while performing tricks in the water.
The Baikal seals, named Winnie the Pooh and Laska, are from Irkutsk’s aquarium located in the Siberian town. The show featured them wearing military headgear and shooting on targets placed in the aquarium. ibtimes.com.au
The seals look healthy, and while the act is as kitschy as any I’ve ever seen, it is pretty clear that their lives would be even more sterile and dull in their pool without training – their trainer thinks the seals are ‘smarter than dolphins’, and if so it is an even more compelling reason not to keep them in those circumstances. By no stretch of the imagination do these conditions ‘resemble their wild habitat”.
Siberian Times reports that the seals are placed in an aquarium with conditions that resemble their wild habitat. They stay in 2-3-degrees Celsius aquariums much like the temperature in Lake Baikal. They also eat the same food they eat when in the wild.
Evgeniy Baranov, founder of the first seal circus in the world, told Siberian Times that the new show is an improvement of the tricks that the seals have learned previously and that these animals get better with practise. Baranov said he has worked with seals for more than 25 years and thought they are smarter than dolphins. ibtimes.com.au
But what does the public learn from these shows? I found little on the Baikal Seal Aquarium website, although that may be a problem with the English version. To get the facts on the seals’ life history I had to do a quick internet search.
What is truly fascinating about these seals (sources: Seal Conservation Society, Science Blogs, Irkutsk.org, BWW.ir.ru) is how they are adapted to fill a unique ecological niche:
- The Baikal seal, one of the world’s smallest pinnipeds, is in fact the only pinniped species that lives solely in freshwater. Individuals are also sometimes found wandering up the rivers surrounding the Lake, one seal having been found 400km upstream.Despite their small size, they are surprisingly long-lived, with males living to 52 and females to 56 (incidentally, Caspian seals are also long-lived, surviving to age 50). Further remarkable is that female Baikal seals continue to reproduce while in their fourth decade. They don’t begin to breed until they are around 20 years old.
- They forage day and night, and vary their hunting strategy accordingly.
- Most of their diet consists of a high fat fish found only in Lake Baikal – this fish is not commercially taken, and the seals actually help preserve other fish species by consuming these predatory fish:
The golomyankas – the big and the small species – live only in Baikal. Their size does not exceed 24 centimetres, they have no scales, and they are nacreous (mother-of-pearl) in colour and transparent. They contain up to 35 per cent of medicinal oil rich in vitamin A.
The golomyanka is the most numerous fish in Baikal, its resources amounting to about 150 thousand tons. However, in neither of its life stages does it swim in schools, so it is not included in the food-fish list. Old residents say that a long time ago, after storms, golomyankas were gathered alongside the shores and the fat was melted and used in treatments for rheumatism, atherosclerosis and for healing wounds that would not scab over for long.
- One of the reason for [a] migration to the bays and shallows is for a ‘course’ of “self-treatment”. Here they feed mainly on the sandy big-headed sculpin whose intestines always contain differing amounts of sand or silt. The sand and silt builds up in the nerpa’s stomach and has an effect on the parasites (worms) forcing them to leave ulcerous pits in its stomach and leave the body in a mass with the faeces. It is specifically in the autumn that one can find such silted up stomachs in nerpa, cleaned of parasitic worms, with the wounds of ulcers healing and healed.
- The hunting of young seals (“kumutkans”) is thought to be the main factor that led to a change in the population structure and a decrease in the reproductive success of the species in the 1980s. As well as the official hunt there is an increasing problem with poaching caused by weakening enforcement and rising prices for the fur of young seals. Fur hats made from seal fur cost approximately 700 rubles each. Undocumented kill has been estimated at 20-40% of the official kill.
- There is a serious problem of pollution in Lake Baikal, research showing that organochlorines and other chemical pollutants build up through the food web in the Lake and accumulate in the seals as top-level predators.
&Do you think that the sheer absurdity of this particular show does anything to educate the public about Baikal seals?