Mystic Aquarium welcomes Echo, a rescued juvenile female grey seal, as the newest permanent resident of the Pacific Northwest habitat! Echo has a congenital heart defect and is therefore unable to be released back into the wild.
Echo came to Mystic Aquarium from the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, New Jersey, where she was originally rescued and received care. She stranded in Ship Bottom, New Jersey in March 2022. The rescue team found she had multiple lacerations and was very lethargic, so she was brought in for rehabilitation. While in rehabilitation the seal couldn’t exercise normally, had labored breathing, and was unable to dive. When the veterinary team examined her, they detected a heart murmur. After several work ups and consultation with two board certified veterinary cardiologists, a diagnosis of mitral valve dysplasia with severe left atrial enlargement was found. What that means is, one of the seal’s heart valves developed abnormally, with the result that blood doesn’t flow correctly through her heart. The left atrial chamber of the heart has to work much harder to keep blood pumping throughout the body, and it became enlarged.
How Mystic Aquarium Became Home
Any time a marine animal rescue team responds to a call of a stranded or injured animal, the goal is to return that animal to the ocean. But sometimes, animals are too sick or injured to survive if released. In those cases, the animal must find a permanent home at a suitable facility that can provide long-term care. For Echo, that forever home became Mystic Aquarium. When the call came out that the seal needed a permanent residence, Mystic Aquarium eagerly stepped up to help.
With that exciting decision, the team here at Mystic prepared for the seal’s arrival. We had a full veterinary team on hand when she arrived, and she settled into one of our behind-the-scenes quarantine habitats. Providing care for newly arrived animals in these areas is standard practice. It helps the animal adjust in a space that’s private and secure and gives the animal care team time to get to know it. It also helps protect the animals already residing at Mystic Aquarium by allowing the team to monitor for any unanticipated issues or illnesses that could come in with an animal from the wild.
After a few weeks of acclimating, Echo was ready to leave quarantine for the Pacific Northwest habitat, less than 500 feet away. Still, a team of approximately 20 was involved to make the transfer as smooth and easy for Echo as possible. It was a team effort, with everyone’s attention on Echo.
How is Echo doing?
Gray seals by nature, are more nervous or cautious seals, and Echo is no different. She is timid around people, but she has been gaining confidence from the other harbor and spotted seals in the habitat. She is much more confident around the other animals and becomes more willing to participate in training behaviors. She follows their lead, trailing them as they travel from the indoor portion to the outdoor portion of the habitat. During training sessions, she will sometimes hop out of the water to be by the side of one of the other seals and participate in its training session! She enjoys sunken enrichment and likes to eat and play with ice. She is curious about gulls, who tend to visit during training sessions, hoping to snatch a fish or two. When Echo sees a gull, she’ll often just stop in the middle of her session to watch it.
Echo’s trainers describe her as gentle and sweet She’s also a quick learner, and has been picking up the behaviors the trainers want her to learn. These behaviors help with her enrichment activities, and are also designed to assist with her health care. In fact, the behaviors she learns help her be an active participant in her own health exams. For example, she is trained to remain in a calm, stationary position for a few moments, which gives the vet team the chance to listen to her heart and administer tests to monitor her cardiac function.
Her trainers also describe her as a bit headstrong. When she’s not motivated, she simply stops and stares at her trainer. She’s also picky when it comes to food. Initially, she would only eat herring that was cut in half, and she would shred into pieces with her long front flipper nails before eating the pieces. Lately, she’s expanded her diet to include other kinds of fish, though herring remains her favorite.
Echo's Heart is in the Right Place
Now that she has a permanent home here at Mystic Aquarium, Echo will receive top-notch care for the rest of her life. And it’s care she needs. Her heart condition is a lifelong issue that will never resolve. However, with daily medication, ongoing health exams, and regular visits from a cardiologist to check on her heart, we aim to give her the longest life possible given her medical condition!
As she gets more comfortable in her new home, we hope that she’ll move to some of the habitats where visitors can see her. For now, she’s continuing to receive the world-class care all the animals at Mystic Aquarium receive. And she’s thriving!
The care Echo receives here at Mystic Aquarium will help other grey seals. Cardiac function and heart disease in marine mammals like pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses) isn’t well understood. Most of what scientists know about marine mammal hearts was learned from examining animals that stranded and did not survive. The ability to monitor Echo's heart condition over time, and to see how she responds to medication, will help veterinarians treat other marine mammals with similar heart conditions. They’ll also be able to get detailed information about the way her heart works and compare that to the heart function of other seals and sea lions here at Mystic Aquarium.
Stay tuned for more updates on Echo! We’ll continue to provide information about her health and how she’s doing, and when she’s ready to move to a public-facing habitat where you can see her.