How a Freak Accident Killed Commander, Boston’s Most Beloved Seal

Inside the tragic (and surprising) death of New England Aquarium’s blubbery showman.

Commander, soon after arriving at the New England Aquarium last year.

Commander, a 500-pound, seven-foot-long northern fur seal. / Photo Courtesy of Fed Ex

There were high hopes for Commander when he rolled into Boston last year. The nearly seven-foot, 500-pound northern fur seal—one of only nine such animals in captivity in the U.S. at the time—was to woo a female counterpart named Ursula and sire a new generation of the threatened species. But a freak accident left the 13-year-old pinniped dead and the staff of the New England Aquarium heartbroken.

Commander’s death, which has gone unreported until now, occurred on a Saturday evening this past April. The day before, he swallowed an approximately foot-long plastic toy with bulbous ends that he enjoyed batting around with his fins and chasing after through the water. The item remarkably passed through his esophagus and into his stomach without incident, and was not immediately life threatening, says Charlie Innis, director of animal health at the New England Aquarium.

Soon after Commander ingested the object, veterinary staff at the aquarium administered a dose of a drug called apomorphine, which is used to induce vomiting, in hopes that he would expel the foreign object. But this approach proved ineffective.

Next up was an endoscopic procedure that took place early Saturday. Commander was put under general anesthesia, and the veterinarians routed a small flexible tube into his stomach in hopes of snatching the foreign item. Unfortunately the shape and size of the object were too much for the animal’s narrow passageways and the procedure was called off.

Even with the toy still in his stomach, Commander remained in good health and had woken up from the endoscopy no worse for wear, Innis says. With options running out, the team decided that surgery was the only way to clear the obstruction. While such surgeries are routine on cats and dogs who swallow household items, a seal of Commander’s size required special arrangements and staff, and the team decided that he would go under the knife on Monday.

On Saturday evening, however, the situation suddenly spiraled toward tragedy when Commander attempted to regurgitate the toy on his own. In doing so, the object became stuck in his esophagus in the worst possible way: “It was lodged across his esophagus at the base of his heart and was restricting blood flow,” Innis says. “And that caused him to immediately go into this crisis episode.”

Aquarium staffers responded instantly and intubated Commander in hopes of opening his airway, but it was too late. “It was so tightly lodged across the base of his heart that he passed away fairly quickly,” Innis says.

Mark Smith, vice president of animal care, says it is the first time in the aquarium’s nearly 50-year history that a seal has died in such a manner and calls it an “extraordinarily freak accident.”

Heather Rally, a veterinarian for the animal rights group PETA, agrees. “From a veterinary standpoint, Commander’s death is tragic,” she says. “It seems like the New England Aquarium was as prepared as they could have been. They did have standard operating procedures in place for obstructions, they took the necessary steps to try to save his life, and it did seem like a freak accident.”

It’s not unheard of for an animal at the aquarium to swallow a foreign object, but most times it’s a pacifier, or pen, or penny—something accidentally introduced to the water by a visitor.

The style of toy that Commander swallowed had been in use with seals for years with no problems, and Commander had no documented history of swallowing objects. Even now Innis still isn’t entirely sure how Commander physically managed to ingest such a large and peculiar-shaped toy.

In the wake of Commander’s death, the aquarium launched an immediate review of the enrichment items, or toys, that seals have access to, and shared information with the Seattle Aquarium, Commander’s previous home.

It was of course an emotional loss for the trainers and veterinarians who had spent months working with the blubbery showman. “Our trainers take a very objective and very professional approach to working with these animals, but it is impossible not to bond with them,” Smith says. “It’s an artifact of working so closely with these animals.”

Commander’s death was also a blow to the aquarium’s efforts aimed at stewarding a new generation of fur seals, whose numbers in the wild are steadily declining. Though Commander gave it his best, he never managed to win over Ursula. “She never put up with him enough to reproduce,” Innes says. “She’s not pregnant this summer, which was the hope last year when Commander came in.”