Alaska SeaLife Center gives seal pups a second chance

Michelle Theriault Boots

On the Homer Spit on Saturday, a butter-soft but bone-skinny harbor seal pup appeared on a crowded stretch of beach between an ice cream parlor and fishing charter office.

Bystanders called the Alaska SeaLife Center's stranded marine animal hotline -- 1-888-774-SEAL -- and by the afternoon, the malnourished week-old female was packed into a dog crate cooled with ice, on her way to Seward.

There, she joined a dozen other ailing harbor seals recuperating from rough starts in life behind-the-scenes at the SeaLife Center: A seal found trying to haul itself into boats near Cordova. One plucked from the mud flats near Anchorage, where it had been stranded for 24 hours. A pup found caught in a net. A hollow-eyed female who'd been approaching kayakers in Resurrection Bay.

Every year from May to July, the SeaLife Center -- Alaska's only marine mammal rehabilitation facility -- sees an influx of stranded or abandoned harbor seals coinciding with the species' pupping season. Most are days- or weeks-old animals whose mothers have left them prematurely, or who have had a hard time surviving their first weeks of independence, said Tara Riemer, the center's president.

All have attracted the attention of well-meaning humans. That's not always a good thing.

Riemer says people should never approach, touch or feed marine mammals. Not all young animals seen alone on a beach are abandoned or need help -- sometimes the animal's mother is just out foraging for food.

As in the case of the seal found on the Homer Spit this weekend, experts only intervene if the animal is sick enough that it wouldn't survive on its own. It's important for marine mammal experts to make that decision, not bystanders, said Carrie Goertz, a staff veterinarian who manages the SeaLife Center's marine mammal stranding program.

"We encourage people to call first before intervening," Goertz said. "That's what's best for the animal. It's also actually the law."

Saturday's Homer seal makes 13 for the season, up sharply from last year. Just four harbor seals ended up in seal rehabilitation then, Goertz said.

While numbers ebb and flow, SeaLife staffers expect at least a handful of harbor seals will arrive every summer.

Staffers even decide on a name theme for the year's new arrivals: This summer's class includes seals dubbed Taj Mahal, Mount Everest, Sahara and Stonehenge. (The seal found on the Homer beach this weekend hasn't been named yet because its prognosis is unclear, Goertz said.)

"They are the only species that are relatively predictable," Riemer said. "All the other species just surprise us."

Lots of harbor seals get rescued in part because they are found in so many different places in Alaska -- from glacial fjords to coastal harbors.

"They are ubiquitous," Riemer said.

The state of Alaska estimates the number of harbor seals at nearly 160,000, but the population has suffered steep declines in some areas.

Pupping season also coincides with the time when warmer weather brings Alaskans out onto beaches, where stressed harbor seals are likely to haul out.

"There are more eyes on the water and beaches," Goertz.

Most of the young harbor seals recuperating at the center will be heading back into the wild, Riemer said.

Unlike other sea mammals such as walruses and otters, harbor seals become independent from their mothers relatively quickly, venturing out on their own after about four weeks. That makes the animals especially well-suited to being released to their natural habitat: Humans don't have to bottle feed or groom them, as is necessary with abandoned sea otters. Seals become less habituated to people.

"We don't hang out with those animals," Goertz said. "The enclosures have solid walls. They don't really see people."

Caretakers deliver the preferred harbor seal meal of herring through a "fish cannon," which is a PVC pipe that leads into the animal's tank, rather than feeding by hand.

When the seals are demonstrating they can capture and eat live prey, gulping down whole fish and weighing in at about 45 pounds they are considered ready to return to the wild, Goertz said. If all goes well, this year's harbor seal cohort could move from tanks to the sea in September.

Back in the wild, harbor seals commonly live between 15 and 20 years.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.