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Far from home, Alaska SeaLife Center looks to rehabilitate rare northern fur seal

Suzanna CaldwellAlaska Dispatch News

SEWARD -- He's only 4 months old, and mostly does what all babies do -- sleep, eat, play.

But this little guy -- with his wormy little body, big flippers and tiny ears -- is a big deal at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward. He's a northern fur seal rescued from Sand Point, a Aleutian Island community of just under 1,000 people about 570 miles southwest of Anchorage, and he's been a surprise in more ways than one.

He's the first northern fur seal the center has ever rehabilitated, according to Stranding Supervisor Halley Werner. Werner has been charge of caring for the little guy -- who tips the scales at 18 pounds -- since he arrived about four months ago.

When the seal -- now dubbed Chiidax, which is an Aleut word meaning "small young animal" -- was found on July 24, he was a 9.5-pound newborn -- underweight and dehydrated when he arrived in a box at the doorstep of Alaska Department of Fish and Game offices in Sand Point with only a note saying the mother must have died during birth.

Northern fur seals are considered a depleted stock of marine mammals, whose populations have dropped significantly since the 1950s. The mammals primarily feed off of pelagic fish and squid, and spend most of their lives at sea. Northern fur seals are best known for their extreme sexual dimorphism, with the females reaching about 120 pounds while males peak at around 600.

Chiidax's arrival was a surprise to nearly everyone at the SeaLife Center. The nearest rookery is 200 to 300 miles away in the Pribilof Islands. Northern fur seals spend most of their lives at sea and usually only come to land to breed. Because of that, they are rarely spotted on shore, and it's even rarer for pups to be rescued, Werner said.

Aleria Jensen, Alaska marine mammal stranding coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said every year a few dozen fur seals become entangled in fishing gear, though they are rarely found stranded on shore. She said in the nine years she's worked with the service, she's never heard of another northern fur seal being rescued and rehabilitated in Alaska.

The distance and lack of information about how the seal ended up in Sand Point kept the NMFS, which has jurisdiction over fur seals, from being able to release the pup back into the wild.

“We don't know exactly where he came from, so we don't know where to release him,” Werner said.

Instead, the Alaska SeaLife Center has been raising Chiidax in preparation to send him to his eventual home at the New England Aquarium in Boston. The aquarium is home to the largest aquarium population of northern fur seals in North America, according to spokesman Tony LaCasse. The aquarium has seven seals in the exhibit, three of which are under 2 years of age.

While the little pup is technically a seal, Werner noted that he's an eared seal, with more physiological similarities to a Stellar sea lion than a seal. He moves quickly on land, with rotating hips and front flippers that peel out, which allows him to easily walk along instead of the more traditional seal scoot.

Since Chiidax is the first fur seal the center has taken in during its 10 years of operation, raising him has been a challenge. Werner said he's needed more care than expected. He eats more than harbor seals, and learning to care for him was a matter of trial and error. That meant he had more human interaction than other animals, another reason he would not be suitable for release.

And despite his cuteness, Werner said he's not much of a cuddler. When trainers do handle him they have to be careful -- he's a bit of a biter, “and he has really sharp teeth,” she said.

This week the little pup is just starting move from formula to fish. Werner said he's most active in the morning, playing for 2 to 3 hours at a time in his own private pool with the little fish workers give him. They hope he'll eat them eventually, though he's still figuring that out, Werner said. After all that playing and eating, Werner said the pup spends a lot of time napping, often with his long front flippers as blankets, his hind flippers tucked up behind them.

Until the little pup gets moved, he remains an Alaska attraction. Last week SeaLife Center officials completed a distance education course with 50 students at the Sand Point school, said Darin Trobaugh, education specialist with the Alaska SeaLife Center who led the discussion.

“It was awesome,” he said, noting the students were especially excited about the pup's extreme cuteness.

Trobaugh said the kids were given the task of naming the pup, with the Center making the ultimate decision on Tuesday.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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