Training massive sea lions and smaller harbor seals is all part of a day’s work for this Northeastern co-op

harbor seal swimming towards camera lens
A harbor seal swims up to the camera during an enrichment activity with Northeastern student Isabella Welch during her co-op at the New England aquarium in Boston. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

If you love a pun, consider Northeastern student Isabella Welch’s co-op experience a two-fur.

The second-year student’s co-op involved spending part of the week at the New England Aquarium among harbor seals and sea lions, and the rest of the week with cats, dogs and the occasional bunny at the Angell Animal Medical Center.

“I created my own co-op,” says Welch, 19, who is studying ecology, evolution and biology with an eye on veterinary school.

Her internship days at the aquarium started at 7:30 a.m. with the decidedly unglamorous task of weighing and bucketing fish for training sessions in the exhibit area. The sardines, herring, squid and occasional salmon used in training are of “restaurant quality” and part of a carefully planned diet, she says.

“They get fish. They get toys. They also get one-on-one time with their trainer,” Welch says.

One of the animals, a sea lion named Zoe, enjoys the attention so much she’s been known to follow a trainer departing the scene and nip at the person’s heels.

“She really doesn’t like people leaving,” Welch says.

Welch wasn’t allowed in the exhibit area with the 600-plus pound sea lions or the smaller, but assertive, fur seal they hang out with, Luna.  

Luna’s bold self-confidence made her one of Welch’s favorites. 

“She’s just very much her own seal,” Welch says. “She doesn’t always like to have high motivation during the sessions. She’ll come up to the trainer but not want any fish. She’ll swim up to the glass and stare you down. She’s very much the queen bee of that exhibit.”

The five harbor seals, weighing about 200 pounds each and made up of two family groups, are quite a bit gentler, and Welch was allowed to accompany a trainer into their exhibit and also give pre-training session talks to  visitors.

”I can touch the harbor seals if the trainer says so. They give me lots of kisses,” Welch says. “The oldest is 37. They were all born here.”

The animals are so used to interacting with their human trainers they try to crowd around when another seal is having its blood drawn—the reason why the trainers put boards around the seals receiving the medical care. 

“They are like, ‘I want to see what’s happening here,’’’ Welch says. “It’s amazing what they’ve trained these animals to do. It reduces a lot of stress.”

Welch says she will continue to work at Angell Animal Medical Center until the end of the semester.

She works in the surgical area, setting up heating pads for cats and dogs, and the occasional bunny, that are recovering from operations. “It helps to bring back blood flow and wake them up again,” she says.

Originally from New Jersey Welch plans to resume classes next semester and after that find another co-op, possibly overseas.

“I like learning by doing,” Welch says. 

As much as she’s enjoyed the aquarium experience, she says she hopes her next co-op will not involve standing in 60 degree water. “Hopefully, it will be a zoo somewhere warm.”

Cynthia McCormick Hibbert is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at or contact her on Twitter @HibbertCynthia