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Seal school in session: see how sea mammals are trained

May 18, 18:29 UTC+3

According to biologists, seals can be trained mainly with the help of treats

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© Murmansk Marine Biological Institute

MURMANSK, May 18. /TASS/. Scientists at the Murmansk Institute of Marine Biological Diversity have developed a unique program to train sea mammals. 

This training program can turn the fin-footed, semiaquatic marine “students” into researchers, servicemen or rescuers, Dmitry Ishkulov, the institute’s deputy director general, told TASS. 

“We are cultivating methods that let both our ‘coaches’ and experts from other institutions train seals to perform different activities. The animals can already be used for guarding facilities, helping in emergency situations, research work and other fields,” Ishkulov said. 

The institute currently trains five seals, males Kombat and Fes and females Selena, Tabita and Shlepa. The biologists said each seal has its own personality type, capabilities and talents. 
The seal pups were caught for training in the Arctic after being abandoned by their mothers (female seals abandon pups after nursing and never come back). 

When cubs are small, they tend to be friendly to each other. Conflicts between them are possible as they grow older. 

Scientists believe that the capabilities and habits of seals and other sea mammals can be identified when they are young, which could make training more effective. 

Biologists also say that sea mammals can be faithful to people. One of the Murmansk institute’s employees, Alexander Troshichev trained a white whale whom he later met at an oceanarium in Europe. The animal recognized his coach and recalled the commands he had trained him.

Work with sea mammals began in the 1980s at the initiative of academician Gennady Matishov, the then director of the Murmansk Institute. Biologists first studied the physiology of sea mammals, their nervous and sensor systems as well as their habits. Then, they put this knowledge into practice. 

Sea mammals were earlier considered to have narrow senses but the institute’s biologists proved that this is wrong. For example, they demonstrated that seals can distinguish between colors and their hues.

“We are talking about not the shades of grey but about the complex color perception,” said Ishkulov. 

It means that sea mammals can distinguish the color of objects underwater and can be eventually trained to respond to different colors in various ways. 
The Russian Navy took interest in sea mammals back in the 1980s. The purpose of the Navy’s joint venture with the institute was to study the options of using seals for inspecting and guarding naval facilities. 

The training of sea mammals is taking place at specially equipped bases in the Kola Bay and Barents Sea. 

According to biologists, seals can be trained mainly with the help of treats. Some animals prefer fish and other like shellfish and sea urchins. On the other hand, any punishment is unacceptable. 

The training starts with simple tasks. At first seals are taught to swim towards a special stick, which is later used to help them master more complicated things. 

Seals are taught to climb into boxes, to swim after boats, to get onboard, to fetch objects from the sea bottom and to wear harness with scientific devices, cameras and flashlights. 

These skills can be widely used. For instance, seals can inspect underwater pipelines and other objects by swimming along the pipes and marking the leaks if there are any. 

They can also look for people underwater both for rescue and security purposes and can even neutralize spies.

Seals can be used for research work and carry devices that measure water parameters and other data at different depths. They can also help the military ensure security of ships and even naval bases. For instance, seals can locate divers and foreign objects. However, scientists do not reveal much details about the military use of sea mammals.

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