At the beginning of 2020, few could have predicted that our social calendars would soon consist almost entirely of Zoom calls. But almost no one would have bet that our most exciting date might wind up being brief video chats with a group of socially anxious eels.

Ever since the novel coronavirus emptied zoos and aquariums of human visitors, many animal caretakers have been treating their charges to special tours, much to the delight of online fans. From penguins in Chicago to puppies in Atlanta, there's been plenty of critters making people smile while they're stressed and social distancing at home.

But the tables have turned at the Sumida Aquarium in Tokyo, which now needs virtual visitors to help assist with animal care in an unconventional fashion. In the wild, garden eels tend to live in big colonies in warm waters around the world, from the Indo-Pacific to the Caribbean. The pretty, polka-dotted eels typically like to burrow into the sand at the bottom of their habitats and peek out at passersby.

Conger of Baleari peeking from pebbles in Mediterranean sea
A shy garden eel peeks up from the floor of the Mediterranean © Getty Images/Cavan Images RF

If they feel comfortable enough, garden eels will stretch out and show off their long spotted bodies, which can sometimes be mistaken by divers for tendrils of plants growing from the ocean floor. The only problem is that without any people to pass by regularly, the eels are getting uncomfortable with human company, and are starting to hide away when their caretakers venture near their tanks.

That's why Sumida is hosting a "Face-Showing Festival" starting on May 3rd through May 5th. The idea is that by Facetiming the awkward eels, they'll get used to human faces and the sound of people's voices, helping them get re-socialized.

Five people at a time will be able to talk to the eels from 10 am to 2pm, using one of five email addresses (helpchin001attogmail.com, Helpchin002attogmail.com, Helpchin003attogmail.com, Helpchin004attogmail.com and Helpchin005attogmail.com) set up to receive iPhone and iPad video calls to the eel tank.

Garden Eels In Aquarium
If Facetiming the eels works, they should look like this next time you walk by their tank at the aquarium © Kitty Yang / EyeEm / Getty Images

Visitors are encouraged to shake their heads and show their faces up close, but are asked to "refrain from crying loudly." After your five minutes with the eels are up, another caller will have their chance to chat with the heterochongrinae. Twice a day virtual visitors can also tune into feeding time. Because the calls are made over WiFi or mobile data, you don't have to worry about incurring long-distance or text message charges.

If the Face Showing initiative works, the eels won't be so stressed when visitors return, and they'll happily carry on with their business even as people walk near the tank. In the meantime, caretakers will be able to tell more easily how the eels are feeling, and if being extra bashful is the only issue they're currently experiencing.

So if you're feeling lonesome or your friends all have Zoom fatigue, don't despair – you can always dial up a Japanese garden eel. They don't say much, but sometimes it helps just to know you've got a buddy who's a little anxious, too.

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