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A Watery Release

Near Westport:

by Kevin Mack - PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

On September 22, a large charter fishing boat entered Washington’s Grays Harbor and approached Sand Island.  Near the island, the boat stopped and held its position.  A small, hinged section along the starboard gunwale swung aside and an animal carrier was pushed up to the water’s edge.  When the carrier door was opened, a head appeared.  The head moved up, down and from side to side with large, dark scanning eyes and flaring nostrils.  A full complement of stiff vibrissae on the upper lips vibrated with excitement. 


After a moment’s pause the head pitched forward.  It slid out of the carrier followed by the torpedo-shaped body to which it was attached and disappeared into the water with a splash.  The scene repeated itself, although this time with a longer pause and a little extra help from those staying behind on the boat, and a second torpedo-shaped body splashed into the water. 


Those two splashes in Grays Harbor heralded the end of a long journey for two Harbor Seal pups who had last swam in those waters more than three months earlier.  One of the pups had been removed from the beach on June 8 after officials with the NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Stranding Network determined that she was in distress.  She arrived at PAWS Wildlife Center that same day and entered our care as patient #11-1082.  At admission she weighed about 18 pounds, and she was suffering from small puncture wounds on her flippers, diarrhea, dehydration and malnutrition.  The second seal came to us five days later on June 13.  Suffering from dehydration and malnutrition, he was assigned the case # 11-1168, and he weighed a little less than 17 pounds.


Both seal pups thrived in PAWS’ care.  Their health rapidly improved, they learned to catch live fish and they put on pound after pound of blubber in preparation for their return to the wild.  The following photos tell the story of their journey through our care and their successful release back in their home waters.

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During the first two weeks following their admission to PAWS, both seals required fluids for hydration and milk replacer formula for nutrition. Here you can see seal #11-1168 receiving fluids via gavage tube. Formula was delivered the same way.
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As the pups grew stronger, we began to wean them from formula and onto whole fish. It can be tricky at first to convince the seals the swallow the fish. Here pup #11-1168 has a fish placed in his mouth. The fish must be placed far back in the throat or the seal will simply spit it out.
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When the fish is placed properly in the sealís mouth, the seal can suck it down with surprising ease as #11-1168 is demonstrating here.
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Between feedings the seals were housed in large pools. When they were not swimming, they would rest on Astroturf covered platforms as pup #11-1082 is doing in this photo.
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Once they were weaned off of milk replacer we began to introduce pre-killed fish into their pools. The seals began to eat these on their own. As they grew larger they were housed together in a much larger pool.
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Eventually, they began to look less like seal pups and more like adult seals. It was time to introduce live fish into their pool so they could learn to catch their own meals.
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At first the seals enjoyed chasing the fish, but they were reluctant to eat them.
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Eventually they got the hang of both capturing and swallowing the live fish. By release day both seals were extremely proficient at capturing prey. Special thanks to wildlife intern Niki Desautels for capturing these underwater photos of the seals.
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On release day, the seals were removed from their pool and placed in large kennels for the long ride to a marina in Westport. At the marina, they were transferred to the deck of a large, charter fishing vessel to complete the journey to the release site. Here we see seal #11-1168 smelling the salt air from the deck of the boat.
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Seal #11-1082 was a little less excited by the boat ride, although she did push her nose up to the door to sample the air.
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PAWS Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Steven Johnson opened the carrier to set seal #11-1082 free. She poked her head out to inspect her surroundings.
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A few seconds later #11-1082 dipped her head down and let her body slide out of the carrier toward the water below.
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She made a nearly perfect dive, her 54 pound body creating only a small splash.
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Next, seal #11-1168 was moved into position for release. Although he had seemed excited on the boat ride, seal #11-1168 was a bit more hesitant to leave his transport carrier.
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He eyed the water warily, and at one point seemed poised to enter. At that very moment seal #11-1082 popped to the surface and startled him back inside the carrier.
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We ended up tipping the carrier at an angle to encourage the seal to enter the water. He undulated his 66 pound bulk forward and exited the carrier.

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He entered the water with a noticeably less-graceful dive than had #11-1082. He stayed under for close to a minute and then both seals popped to the surface close to one another.

 

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They glanced our way a few times as we departed in the boat, and we all wished them well as they dove once more and embraced their newfound freedom.

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The seals looked great back in their element. They began to swim to the east toward Sand Island, a large sandbar on which seals are known to rest at low tide.

 

 




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