National

Seal checks into Hotel Tamagawa

by Takuya Asakura

A young bearded seal has been hanging out in the Tama River bordering Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture since last week, drawing daily crowds of onlookers during the Bon holiday week.

The light-gray mammal is of a species usually found in Arctic waters that on rare occasions may be seen off Hokkaido around ice floes, according to experts.

“Tama-chan,” as the seal has come to be called, apparently strayed several kilometers inland in search of fish, they said.

A few hundred people have turned out along the river daily, including young children with binoculars and amateur photographers, to get a glimpse of the rare guest, which has frequently elected to climb up on one of the pylons of a JR railway bridge for both the bullet train line and the Yokosuka Line.

On Friday morning, the seal turned up about 500 meters farther upstream, near the bridge for the Tokyu Toyoko Line near Tamagawaen Station.

The seal came up for air every five to 10 minutes, taking a brief look at its fans on the shore some 30 meters away, before slipping back below the surface.

“I heard something on TV about a seal being spotted in a river,” said a young company worker on summer vacation, who wielded his camera and its 500-mm zoom lens every time the seal broke the surface. “I did not realize it was the Tama River in my neighborhood.”

Said a middle-aged man living nearby, “It has been good entertainment over the holidays.”

Local fishermen said there are many big fish, including carp, in the river that should be enough to keep the 1- to 1.5-meter holidaymaker well fed.

Nobuyuki Nagatsuka of Sunshine International Aquarium in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, said the seal must be able to live in fresh water if it is eating fish in the river. The sea mammal expert said bearded seals are known to eat invertebrates, including octopus and shellfish.

He also said he believes the seal has lost enough body fat to adjust to the high water temperature.

But Tama-chan’s big-city frolic could be coming to an end. A fireworks festival on Saturday could scare him away, or heavy rain from an approaching typhoon could raise the river level Sunday and send him downstream.