Yearning for some animal interaction? Head to Atlantis The Palm and meet its new residents – two South African fur seals. Benita Adesuyan meets their trainer.
Move over Flipper – Dolphin Bay at Atlantis The Palm now has two new semi-aquatic friends in situ, Molly and Sanga – two South African fur seals. The pair are the latest addition to the resort’s animal family and now visitors can get up close and personal with the marine-dwellers and even go in for a fishy kiss or two.
The new initiative vows to give visitors a chance to interact with and learn about the marine mammals, watch them be fed and get a photo taken with the pair. While the creatures are a long way from home, Atlantis has a created a special enclosure for them with a variety of environments to keep the duo at the right temperatures and well-stimulated. Miguel Rodriguez, who has worked with marine animals for 12 years and is in charge of taking care of the seals, talks to Time Out about how the residents have taken to their new surroundings.
How long does it take to train a South African fur seal? It really depends on which behaviour or programme they are learning, and it depends on the animal, some of them learn faster than others, just like us. As all South African fur seals are different, with various personalities and levels of ability, it is necessary to go at the pace of each animal in order to train them successfully.
What are Molly and Sanga’s personalities like? They’re both fully grown seals. Molly is very calm and relaxed. She loves playing with her fish and enjoys her naps during the day. Sanga is very cheerful and curious, she loves sliding and making noise, her favourite toy is a fish bottle. They both give fantastic kisses and are wonderful dancers, too.
Is it uncomfortable for them to be on their flippers? Fur seals are Pennipeds – ie, fin- footed – so it’s natural for them to be in this position. Fur seals spend time on water and use their front flippers when they come onto land.
Compared to other animals, say dolphins, are they easy or harder to work with? They are very different. Fur seals have the ability to understand voice cues, which makes it more comfortable for us, but at the same time we need to be extremely careful in how we use our facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and clarity of the voice cue. This makes it really rewarding since they have the ability to walk, which gives a whole plethora of behaviour as opposed to dolphins.
What techniques do you use to train the seals? We have strong, positive relationships with our fur seals, and although they arrived with training, we reshaped the majority of their behaviours and desensitised them around people. We use Operant Conditioning and have built strong relationships with them to teach them various behaviours.
So what’s Operant Conditioning? It involves increasing or decreasing the frequency of a behaviour based on the consequence. A favourable consequence results in the behaviour occurring again. They get a variety of rewards – fish, touch or toys – to show that they’ve done a good job. We also use a variety of discriminative stimuli; hand gestures, vocal cues, tactile signals or other sounds in order to communicate with Molly and Sanga.
If they’re rewarded for good behaviour – are they ever punished for bad behaviour? No. We do not use any form of punishment in our training programme, instead we provide a least reinforcing scenario when presented with an incorrect response. So they’ll receive a three to five second neutral response that brings little to no attention to the undesired behaviour type.
What kind of fish do they eat? They eat restaurant-quality fish from the best suppliers – usually squid, capelin and school whiting.
How much fish do you get through every day? On average they eat 5kg every day.
Do you ever get fed up of the smell of fish? You just get used to it! Sea Lion Photo Fun, Dhs425 for day visitors and Dhs275 for in-house guests. Price includes a presentation to the animals, guided interaction and a free souvenir photo. Atlantis The Palm, Palm Jumeirah, www.atlantisthepalm.com (04 426 1030).
Get up close to nature
Other venues operating similar meet-and-greets around town.
The Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo Try the Shark Walker experience, from the safety of the cage you can swim with sharks. With the breathing helmets you don’t need to be an experienced diver and you don’t even get your hair wet. Dhs590 for 30 mins. The Dubai Mall, Downtown Dubai, www.thedubaiaquarium.com (04 342 2993).
Al Tamimi Stables Located in Sharjah this petting farm has 30 acres of land with over 500 domestic and exotic animals. Dhs60 for adults, Dhs35 for children over three years old, Dhs180 for a family pass (two adults and three children over three years old). Al Zubair, Sharjah, www.tamimistables.com (06 743 1122).
Camel cuddling at Al Sahra Desert Resort Meet the camel herd, groom the beasts and shampoo their humps. Dhs200. Al Sahra Desert Resort, Dubailand, www.desert-ranch.com (04 427 4055).