Humans aren’t the only ones going through a rough time right now. With the dystopian pandemic we live in, social distancing has kept most of us away from zoos and aquariums. The thing is that some animals haven’t been taking shutdowns too well.
Tokyo’s Sumida Aquarium has been closed since March 1, but without human visitors, its spotted garden eels keep retreating into their sandy burrows. This is why keepers who need to examine them (impossible to do if they’re hiding) are asking people to FaceTime the notoriously shy creatures.
The aquarium thought of reaching out to the public for help after the eels would hide when even a keeper approached. Their health and breeding habits need to be monitored, so in an attempt where it actually makes sense to put tech near water, five tablets have been set up along the tank where the aquarium’s 300 eels hide out. Anyone can call with an iPad or iPhone between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to get the eels used to seeing humans again—but you only have 5 minutes. They are so popular that everyone wants to chat with them, from adults holding seemingly normal conversations to kids making wide-eyed faces to get their attention.
Garden eels earned their name for their tendency to look like plants growing when they slink out of their burrows to feed with their tails still anchored firmly in the sand. They live in colonies on the seafloor, so watching them emerge has a surreal effect when you realize those “plants” have eyes. What is even weirder about these eels is that they secrete slime as a sort of cement for their burrow walls and escape predators by diving inside tail-first, not headfirst. When they feel it’s safe or they get hungry enough, they will stick their heads out, but being socially distanced from people for so long has had a detrimental effect.
Japan has a long history of fascination with eels (unagi), which don’t always end up as sushi. The Japanese love spotted garden eels so much that November 11 is officially “National Garden Eel Day.” You can build them with this Nanoblock set. One couple even had their wedding in front of the Sumida Aquarium’s tank, garden-eel-themed cake and all. Eels in general are often seen in art and culture, from fantastical Edo-era paintings to the name of Ichigo Kurosaki’s boss in the wildly popular manga and anime Bleach. Ikumi Unagiya runs an odd-job place where Ichigo works after he temporarily loses his shinigami powers.
Seems that we really are all toughing this out together — no matter the species.