Oregon Zoo's harbour seals get into 'shape' with new fitness routine

While many of us have already given up on our New Year's fitness drives, harbour seals at Oregon Zoo have been earning their fish suppers with a new activity - shape training.

Care staff in the zoo's marine life area have been working with harbour seals Tongass, Atty, and Kaya on recognising specific shapes both above and below the water, and they're getting great results.

"Harbour seals are really smart, and we want to keep them active and engaged," said Nicole Nicassio-Hiskey, a senior keeper who cares for the seals. "Training sessions like these help us build strong relationships with the seals, and it makes our time together that much more fun."

Each seal is assigned their own shape - Tongass: the star, Atty: the moon and Kaya: the triangle. When Nicassio-Hiskey gives them a cue, they dive below the surface and head toward an underwater viewing window, where other keepers are holding shapes against the glass.

Once the seals find their marks, keepers might request a series of behaviours - like "spin", "flipper present" and "mouth open" - and after they complete their routine, the seals are rewarded with some of their favourite foods.

According to Nicassio-Hiskey, they're learning quickly and having a good time doing it, but the training also serves a higher purpose.

"Practicing these behaviours in a fun environment helps the harbour seals participate in their own care," she explained.

Harbour seals are graceful underwater and can swim forward, backwards and upside-down, but they are awkward on land, where they flop along on their bellies.

Depending on what they're hunting, they can dive 300 to 1,500 feet. During a dive, their nostrils close and their heart rate slows from 100 beats per minute to about 5 beats per minute. These changes allow them to stay underwater for as long as 35 minutes.