Museum Tourist: Polaria

Polaria in Tromsø, Norway, is the world’s northernmost aquarium. When you spend time in northern Norway, you see a lot of world’s northernmost things. The world’s northernmost brewery is around there somewhere. In Svalbard this April I took cash out of the world’s northernmost ATM and ate at the world’s northernmost pub. (None of these claims have been checked.)

Frankly, Polaria isn’t much of an aquarium. It’s mostly a seal tank with a really nice gift shop. This is not a complaint. The seals were lots of fun to watch.

When we were there, they had four seals. The two big ones with whiskers were bearded seals from Svalbard. The two little ones were harbor seals from Lofoten. All were captured in the wild as babies.

We happened to be there for seal feeding time, which I highly recommend. In fact, if we hadn’t been there at seal feeding time, I think this place would have felt like a giant rip-off.

The staff started the feeding by informing us that the tricks weren’t for entertainment–they were to keep the seals from getting bored. I can see how a seal might get bored. They don’t have to forage; their food comes to them, out of buckets. Their tank was fair-sized, but it was a lot smaller than the ocean.

The staff mixes up what the seals do at the training sessions; they don’t do all their skills every time. For example, we saw one (or maybe both–who knows) of the harbor seals leap nearly a full body-length out of the water to bop a hanging orange ball with its nose, but nobody jumped through the hoop.

I feel a little guilty about how much I enjoyed watching the animals do their tricks. I mean, I really loved it. They were adorable. I nearly squealed the first time the trainers gave the bearded seals a sign and they swiveled in place in the water, their snuffly whiskers and gray snout pointing upward.

On the other hand, these four seals were in a murky tank under fluorescent light. When they weren’t being fed, they spent their time constantly zipping around the tank in loops and back and forth, over and over. Seals may not be chimpanzee-smart, but they aren’t goldfish, either. They must have noticed how small their world is.  It seemed like not a very nice way to live your life. Sure, a polar bear isn’t going to get them, but what is freedom worth?

Polaria also has a number of tanks of fish and shrimp and whatnot, but really, you’re there for the seals. And the seal skins. If you liked what you saw, you have plenty of options of seal items in the gift shop. (Don’t try to bring them back to the U.S., though–it’s probably illegal, plus someone at another shop told us seal skin products can start smelling really bad in warm climates.)

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