Brittany Miller stood waist-deep in a pristine pool at the New England Aquarium in May, her face scrunched together in glee as a fur seal leapt up, greeting her cheek with its nose. A smile spread over her face as she opened her eyes, looking down at the seal’s puppy-like expression.
Afterward, Miller had the air of one just getting off the Superman coaster at Six Flags. What a rush! Clad in a far-from-trendy mud-brown wader suit — of the same material as wetsuits and complete with fisherman-style rain boots — Miller also appeared awestruck.
“I loved it,” she said breathlessly. “I got to feed her fish and squid, and my favorite part was the kiss on my cheek.”
“It almost felt like a dog’s nose — very wet,” said her boyfriend, Steve Spano, 31, who waded into the fishy-smelling water alongside Miller, 24. “They were very gentle for their size.”
The half-hour seal-greeting experience did not come cheap. At $125 per person, Miller presented it as a surprise to Spano, a special gift when he returned home from a recent military tour.
“We’re both animal lovers,” she said.
Getting up-close with seals is among the programs the aquarium is launching this summer giving visitors a hands-on experience for an additional cost. They could prove a helpful new revenue source after the aquarium’s multi-year, $49 million expansion, which included installing a $17.8 million Giant Ocean Tank, which anchors the Boston exhibits, and building an off-shore research and holding site in Quincy, said Tony LaCasse, the aquarium’s spokesman.
“We’re already starting to sell many of these experience programs, and we’ve barely even marketed them,” he said in May, noting that pop star Lorde swung by the aquarium earlier this spring to take her own private tour, feed Myrtle the green sea turtle, and play with the fur seals.
“We offered swimming with the seals before, intermittently, and [it was] always very popular,” LaCasse said. “But it’s a general trend right now in zoos and aquariums to offer these experiences and behind-the-scenes tours. They’re becoming more and more popular.”
Though some might be squeamish at the thought of approaching a hundred-plus-pound fur seal, LaCasse insists the experiences are safe.
“We have never had an incident here,” LaCasse said. “Trainers work with the seals every day, and the seals often are born here or come here when they’re very young. It’s a very common program offered throughout the country.”
For those who have already bought admission for the aquarium, the organization also offers a tour of the more typical fish tanks found along the outer edges of the exhibit area for $20, taking participants behind the scenes a half-story up to peer down into the tops of display tanks.
Just above the tanks, tour leaders guide participants through a dimly-lighted maze of pipes and storage basins, regaling the audience with educational material wrapped up in anecdotes about the animals. For example, there’s the legendary tale of Truman, an octopus who years ago impatiently squeezed into an acrylic box to gobble up crabs instead of cracking it open as expected.
Tour participants are also invited to touch horseshoe crabs and Pinchy, the half-black, half-orange lobster found near Salem.
Shira Lithwick, 12, from Toronto, marveled after she and her family paraded through the less-publicized alley of tanks, earnestly divulging that this was her first time setting foot in an aquarium.
“Everything here is new to me, so actually getting to learn about it when it was right there was really cool,” Lithwick said after the tour. “It was really different. I’ve never seen anything like that actually so close.”
The aquarium also recently added a program where, for $125, attendees can perch on a small platform poking over the top of the 40-foot-wide Giant Ocean Tank and throw broccoli, lettuce, and brussel sprouts to the 550-pound Myrtle, who has garnered more than 3,000 “likes” on her Facebook page. During most of these feedings, dozens of aquarium visitors will gather at the top of the tank to watch — many with apparent envy.
Sherrie Floyd, supervisor of the Giant Ocean Tank, hopes the programs will help raise awareness surrounding marine life and inspire more people to get involved in its issues.
“People don’t understand the magnitude needed to manage this exhibit; we have divers, biologists, and water technicians,” Floyd said, noting that anyone who signs up to feed Myrtle also receives a one-on-one tour of the tank’s operations. “It’s not just about the one experience. It’s about getting people interested and becoming strong supporters of the citizen scene — to help with beach cleanups or conservation programs. We can help get them connected.”
The nonprofit aquarium calls on volunteers to help out with its day-to-day operations. Lauren Mack, 23, could be found stuffing vitamins into squid — a delicacy she dubbed “squid tacos” — to feed to other of the aquarium’s residents. Meanwhile, a co-op student from Northeastern University loaded wetsuits into a washing machine, and three volunteer divers suited up for a maintenance plunge into the Giant Ocean Tank.
A rare glance into this behind-the-scenes tableau, as well as a tour of the nearby in-house veterinarian wing, is now included in the price of feeding Myrtle.
“We used to just meet people at the top, and that would be it,” Floyd said. “Now, we take them around here and give them a speech of what it takes to run an exhibit of this size.”
Floyd added that the new programs are hardly a burden on aquarium workers who lead them.
“We’re fish geeks,” she said. “We love talking about this stuff.”