Just what the doctor ordered

On rounds at the harbor seal exhibit with the Aquarium’s vet

Ever wondered what it would be like to be the primary care physician for the 10,000-plus animals that make their homes at the Seattle Aquarium? Senior veterinarian Caitlin Hadfield, VetMB Dipl. AZCM Dipl. ECZM, could tell you all about it—she’s the doctor in charge for our mammals, birds, fish and invertebrates, and she recently allowed us to tag along while she cared for the Aquarium’s harbor seals.

Caitlin listens to Q’s heart, lungs and gut.

Time for your checkup

Aquarium husbandry staff monitor the health of our animals every day; Caitlin performs full physical exams and also cares for animals with injuries, illnesses or other health issues. “All the Aquarium’s animals have care plans that are customized to their species and individuals within the species,” she notes.

Harbor seals receive full physicals at least two times per year, including an eye exam, ultrasound, and voluntary blood and fecal samples. And, just like your doctor does during your checkup, Caitlin uses a stethoscope to listen to the heart, lungs and abdomen of each seal. She listens closely: “Because of their thick blubber layers,” she laughs, “their body sounds are a bit muffled.”

Caitlin also looks in the seals’ eyes, ears and mouths—just like your doctor does with you. But in Caitlin’s case, expert training is the essential element that allows her to perform the exam. Aquarium husbandry staff work with the animals each day, teaching and practicing behaviors that allow them to voluntarily participate in their own health care.


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Tools of the trade

Outside the exhibits, Caitlin works behind the scenes, using specialized equipment—just as your doctor would—to monitor animal health. The ultrasound machine is a particularly useful tool, and one that can be pressed into service for virtually any of our animals.

As you may know, ultrasound machines use sound waves to look at tissue density, providing a picture of what’s happening inside the body. Says Caitlin, “We can use our ultrasound machine to check for pregnancy; look at organs; understand what’s happening behind an injured eye; learn why a belly looks big…it’s our best diagnostic option, and allows us to pinpoint issues that we might not detect otherwise.”

Analyzing an ultrasound scan behind the scenes.

Interested in learning more about harbor seals? Check out our harbor seal fact sheet—and spend some time at the harbor seal exhibit during your next visit to the Aquarium. Check the daily activity schedule when you arrive; you may be able to watching a training session!


See a harbor seal in the Sound or on a local beach? Don’t approach!

Although they may look friendly, harbor seals in the wild can be dangerous. The human contact shown in our photos is the result of years of training and trust-building; you should never get that close to a harbor seal, or any marine mammal, in the wild—for their health and yours.




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Cool jobs at the Seattle Aquarium

All about creepy, crawly, squishy, slippery, bird and mammal food prep!

Whole fish and shrimp—some with heads that need to be removed before they’re served to the animals. Live crickets. Pounds and pounds of clams and mussels. Dungeness crabs. Superworms. (What’s a superworm? An extra-big, extra-wiggly mealworm.)

That’s just a sampling of the kinds of foods eaten by the Aquarium’s birds and mammals—all of it prepped by staff members, starting at 5:30am each day. It’s messy work, so rain pants are required, along with top-notch organizational skills.

Above: an ice toy in the making.

“Cooking” for a crowd

Why is it so important to be organized? Because putting together a day’s worth of food for these animals is like packing meals for a big, diverse family…one composed of 26 individuals, some of whom eat live bugs and others who need to eat eight times each day. At least none of it actually has to be cooked: like all animals, those at the Aquarium eat their food raw—and, in some cases, while it’s still living!

One prep step at a time

To work most efficiently, the best approach is to prep the food by type, not by individual animal. Using our example, if you were making two dozen lunches, you’d probably do all the sandwiches first, then move to the veggies, then fruit, then cookies. The same applies to our animals: staff members might start with butter clams, then move to shrimp, pollock, capelin and herring, and on down the line until all the food is ready.

Unlike a typical human lunch though, every bit of food consumed by our animals is carefully weighed to ensure each individual is getting precisely the right amount. The varied diets are based on nutrients, the fat and moisture content of the different foods, and other factors. And, just like humans get tired of eating the same meal over and over again, animals do too—so lead staff members regularly change foods and combinations to keep things interesting and ensure everything, even less-exciting food items, gets eaten.

Take your vitamins!

Also like humans, animals need their vitamins. Staff members must sometimes get sneaky—like tucking a vitamin inside a clam’s mantle—to ensure they get eaten. That’s less of an issue for animals that swallow their food whole, like harbor and fur seals; in those cases, staff members just tuck the vitamins into the gills of a fish.

Only the best for our animals

As for the quality of the food? We’re not bragging when we say it’s the best. The Aquarium’s mammals and birds enjoy a delectable diet of sustainable, restaurant-quality seafood—the same seafood you’d get on your plate at a five-star restaurant. Providing them with the highest-quality food available helps safeguard their health, and sets a great example for their human counterparts, as well. Thanks your support that helps ensure that our animals get the best food, the best care, possible!




“It’s fun to play chef for our
animals, and it sets the animal
care team up for success for the
rest of the day.”
—Kelli Lee, animal care





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Youth conservationists learning and working together

On October 7, youth volunteers from the Seattle Aquarium and Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium (PDZA) co-hosted the third Youth Ocean Conservation Summit (YOCS) Puget Sound at PDZA. ​Seventy-five young conservationists came together to plan their own conservation projects to lead in their communities. Planning for the event is led by a select team of volunteers from the Aquarium and PDZA. Below is a reflection from Emilie, a Youth Ocean Advocate and planning team member, about her experience working to plan and host the event.

“This was my first year on the planning team for the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit, a youth-planned conference for other local middle and high school students to learn the skills to create and implement their own unique conservation projects in their communities. Participants attend different workshops throughout the day by professionals who cover topics related to conservation, such as social media and marketing, or consumer advocacy and outreach. They also get the opportunity to collaborate with one another and hear from teens who have already successfully completed their own projects. Participants leave with action plans for their projects and can apply for grants to help fund them.

“I worked with other Youth Ocean Advocates from the Seattle Aquarium and teens from the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium to organize this event. We started working on it way back in April, six months before the conference. At first it was a challenge to communicate with the other teens from PDZA, but we made it work by busing down a few times, and lots of emailing back and forth. After coming to an agreement on the topics we wanted to cover, we split the work evenly between us. The hardest part was securing speakers for the workshops. I sent out a lot of emails and reached out to  a lot of people. In the end, our hard work paid off with amazing speakers.  

“When I found out about this opportunity last December, I didn’t really know what I was in for. I didn’t expect to meet so many other inspiring teens and professionals, or have as much fun planning it. I look forward to reading over the grant applications and hearing about the new projects the participants are starting.”

-Emilie P., Youth Ocean Advocate and YOCS planning team member

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Rescued olive ridley sea turtle, “Coral,” receiving care at the Aquarium

The Seattle Aquarium is once again providing expert care to an olive ridley sea turtle—and unlike Tucker, a male turtle of the same species who was brought to us in late 2016, this turtle is female. Her caregivers have given her the name “Coral.”

Coral was discovered stranded on a beach near Salishan on the Oregon coast on the evening of October 20. She was quickly brought to the Seattle Aquarium, Washington state’s only recognized sea turtle rehabilitation facility, and has been receiving around-the-clock care ever since. In critical condition when she arrived, she has shown signs of gradual improvement during her time with us. After examining her and performing an ultrasound on November 2, Seattle Aquarium Senior Veterinarian Caitlin Hadfield said, “Everything is contracting and relaxing nicely in the heart, there’s a lot less gas in her intestines, her GI tract is moving nicely, and most importantly her breathing is improving…everything is pretty good.”



Olive ridleys are considered to be must abundant sea turtle species in the world but their populations have been in rapid decline, largely due to human impacts, and they are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Although they are most commonly seen in warmer waters, they are also found further north.

Healthy olive ridley sea turtles don’t often come to shore—aside from nesting season, that is, when females gather on beaches to lay their eggs. Otherwise, olive ridleys may spend nearly their entire lives at sea.

Unless something goes wrong—if they are injured, sick, hypothermic or a combination thereof. Such was the case with Coral, who came to us cold-stunned, emaciated and weak. “Cold stunning” refers to what happens when sea turtles undergo prolonged exposure to water that’s too cold for them. Strandings are most common in the fall and early winter, when ocean conditions shift, increasing the likelihood of olive ridleys getting trapped currents of colder water. As their body temperatures drop, the turtles lose their ability to swim and feed, and their immune systems shut down. If they’re fortunate, like Coral, they get carried to shore by a current and rescued.

Asked why the Aquarium is devoting so much time and care to the life of a single turtle, Dr. Hadfield explained, “Every animal counts—every sea turtle counts. This is not a problem Coral could have addressed by herself. If we’re able to help, we should. And our goal is to get her fixed as quickly as possible and returned back to the wild.”

While quick action is necessary to save the life of a stranded sea turtle, it must be expert action as well. If you spot a sea turtle on a Washington, Oregon or California beach, do not approach, touch or attempt to move it. Instead, please report the stranding immediately to the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network hotline at 1-866-767-6114. The line is monitored 24 hours per day, seven days per week.

Stay tuned for updates on Coral’s progress in the weeks to come. Interested in learning more about Tucker, the olive ridley who was rehabilitated at the Seattle Aquarium in 2016 and 2017? Read our previous blog posts:

Rescued sea turtle recuperating at the Seattle Aquarium

Virginia Mason, Seattle Aquarium partner to provide hyperbaric oxygen therapy to help rescued sea turtle recover

Tucker the sea turtle heading to sunny San Diego

Tucker and Comber: sea turtle FAQ

California-bound with Tucker the sea turtle

Update: Tucker the rehabilitated sea turtle

Be sure to also check out KING 5’s report on Coral:

Near-death sea turtle recovering at Seattle Aquarium

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Inspiring conservation with empathy

Research shows that encouraging and developing empathy for animals in children is an important motivator toward action on the animals’ behalf. Seeing animals receiving exceptional care at the Seattle Aquarium and learning about the importance of a healthy habitat for their well being helps children transfer their resulting feelings of goodwill to marine animals in the wild, as well as Earth’s one ocean.

Through a generous donation by an anonymous donor, your Aquarium is in the midst of a multi-year project, Inspiring Empathy for Our Marine Environment, dedicated to compiling, sharing and implementing best practices related to empathy development in children. In conjunction with the Woodland Park Zoo and Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, the Seattle Aquarium has conducted a review of literature and generated tools to measure empathy-related outcomes; the Aquarium has already implemented empathy into several of its programs. One area of particular focus for the Aquarium has been helping children draw connections with less-charismatic animals—such barnacles and corals, which frequently aren’t recognized by children (and even some adults) as being animals at all.

In support of this project in 2016, Aquarium staff made leadership presentations at two national conferences; developed and held three workshops for formal and informal educators; contributed a chapter for a textbook on ocean literacy; and began planning a project that will support empathy development in children across the country.

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