Tama-chan battles flab, sassy new rival

A year has passed since the bearded seal nicknamed Tama-chan moved to the Ara River in Saitama Prefecture from Tama River in Yokohama.

It now seems a long time ago when hundreds of fans flocked to the Tama banks to glimpse the seal. Stalls were even set up selling snacks, including shaved ice to beat the summer heat.

These days Tama-chan can still be spotted, but the mammal has physically changed from its life in Japanese waters. Experts say the seal, which they reckon is 3 three years old, has grown to 1.9 meters long and now weighs about 180 kg, after putting on 30 kg in the past year.

Tama-chan is now unable to use its fore flippers to climb onto the swim step of the pleasure boat Grace III, which is moored in Asaka, Saitama Prefecture. The seal has tried to board the boat over 100 times, to no avail.

Because seals grow new hair every spring, they come out of the water and clean their skin by sunlight, according to the experts.

Instead of trying to sunbathe on the boat, Tama-chan has recently been lying sprawled on a sandy spot about 100 meters downriver.

“There is not much we can do. We must let it be,” said Mitsuo Motohashi, 56, owner of the boat. He has observed the popular animal for the past year.

“We’d like to help Tama-chan get on the boat. But what can we do? The seal has become too big,” Motohashi’s wife, Fumiko, 57, said.

On March 9, Tama-chan had a competitor for its popularity, when a 1-year-old spotted seal was observed in the Pacific off the city of Kamogawa, Chiba Prefecture.

The rival, nick-named Kamo-chan, appears to be about the same age as Tama-chan when it first appeared on the Tama River in August 2002.

Kamo-chan’s popularity is on the rise as it has been often spotted crawling around a nearby beach.

Chiaki Fujita, 52, who comes to Kamogawa to check on the seal every week, is enamored by both seals.

“Kamo-chan sometimes acts threateningly toward children, but because it’s so small, this behavior is still cute,” Fujita said. “At the same time, Tama-chan still attracts me with its nervous and sweet look.”

Although Tama-chan went through various troubles, including attempts by an animal protection group to catch it and getting a fishing hook caught in its face, government officials and experts are determined to let the popular seal be and merely observe it.

The Arakawa River office of the Land, Transport Ministry has installed a protective fence in the area around the sandy spot where Tama-chan often suns itself.

It will also publish a book containing photos of the seal and illustrations of Tama-chan sent from fans in the near future, according to the officials.

“Tama-chan is in surprisingly good health and will probably have no trouble spending its third summer on the river,” said Kazutoshi Arai, an official of the theme park Kamogawa Sea World.