Selkie and Gunnar were wild-born seals, born off the coast of Iceland in November of 1973. At just a few months in age, they sat happily on sunny rocks; basking with the rest of the colony, when a man in flippers approached. Selkie, Gunnar, and a third seal named Njal, were picked up by the man and immediately sent off to San Diego, California in the United States.
While in San Diego, Gunnar and Selkie became two of many marine mammals recruited for the United States Navy’s Marine Mammal Program. Here, many aquatic species such as Sea Lions, Dolphins, and even Killer Whales were trained for military purposes. From tagging underwater objects, carrying messages to divers, to detecting floating mines, these animals were trained to do phenomenal tasks. The Killer Whales were able to attach devices to anti-submarine torpedoes which allowed the objects to be lifted from the ocean floor to about 1,654 feet below the ocean’s surface.
For Selkie and Gunnar, their jobs were even more fantastic. Since Seals are naturally able to dive up to 1,000 feet and hold their breaths for up 20 minutes, Selkie and Gunnar were perfect candidates for their new positions. Having finger-like front flippers, Gray Seals are more able to manipulate objects than any other marine mammals in their selection. Therefore, Selkie and Gunnar were chosen to learn how to retrieve underwater fallen tools and objects by divers, collect items from the ocean floor, turn valves, insert and remove equipment, and even how to use a screwdriver!
Although Selkie and Gunnar were able to perform such tremendous feats, neither were able to do these tasks consistently enough to be considered reliable. As a result, in January 1979, they were sent to the National Zoo in Washington D.C.
While at the National Zoo, Selkie and Gunnar continued their service to their country, and the world, by engaging in the U.S. breeding program. Both, newly introduced genetics helped to revitalize the Gray Seal in captive populations.
Gunnar passed away June 22, 2012 at 38 years old, outliving the average lifespan of male Gray’s by 8 years. His longtime friend and partner, Selkie, also outlived her average females and passed away at an amazing age of 43, in November of 2016.