Alaska News

After spending days aground in Sitka, a sea lion returns to the water – with help from humans

A sea lion that had been on land in Sitka for four days was transported in a front-end loader back to water after being darted, Sept. 3, 2018. (NOAA photo)

An improvised rescue mission involving a front-end loader and tranquilizer darts returned a desperate and dehydrated sea lion that spent four days meandering around Sitka to the ocean Monday.

"It's a good outcome," said Julie Speegle of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. "He was last seen catching a fish."

The four-day misadventure appears to be a one of a kind event for a Steller sea lion in Alaska: Scientists say they don't know of any other similar instances of a sea lion hauling out in a populated area for days in Alaska.

First seen humping down a road near Sitka's hospital early Friday morning, the Steller sea lion had spent most of the past two days hiding in the woods. Scientists tried to encourage him to travel the quarter-mile to the ocean on his own, but those attempts failed.

A Steller sea lion was ushered down to the harbor, but didn’t quite make it. “Right before, he went into the woods in this area,” the Sitka Volunteer Fire Department of this photograph in a Facebook post. Sept. 1, 2018. (Roberta White / Sitka Volunteer Fire Department)
Officials worked to usher a Steller sea lion back to the ocean on Sept. 1, 2018. (Roberta White)
A sea lion ventured into Sitka Sept. 1, 2018 and hasn’t found his way back to the water as of Sept. 3. (Roberta White / Sitka Volunteer Fire Department)
Personnel with multiple agencies gather to make a plan for dealing with the sea lion, Sept. 1, 2018. As of Sept. 3, he still hadn’t made it back to the water. (Roberta White / Sitka Volunteer Fire Department)
“And we are on the move,” the Sitka Volunteer Fire Department wrote on Facebook about this photo, where officials tried to usher a sea lion back to the harbor. Sept. 1, 2018. (Roberta White)
Officials with the Sitka Volunteer Fire Department hold water hoses that they used to spray a Steller sea lion that wandered into the community this week. Sept. 1, 2018. (Roberta White)
The Sitka Volunteer Fire Department sprays a Steller sea lion with water in an attempt to move it toward the harbor. Sept. 1, 2018 (Roberta White)
Officials gather in front of a Steller sea lion that wandered into Sitka. Sept. 1, 2018. (Roberta White)
A Steller sea lion sits in the doorway of an old dormitory in Sitka. Officials are trying to usher the animal back to sea. Sept. 1, 2018. (Roberta White)
A Steller sea lion that wandered into Sitka sits in the doorway of a Penrod Hall, an old dormitory. The sea lion was first seen in the early hours of Friday morning. On Saturday, officials tried to usher the creature to the ocean. Sept. 1, 2018 (Roberta White)

By Monday, things were getting desperate.

Sea lions can haul out on rookeries for days "with no problem" said Kim Raum-Suryan of NOAA's protected resources division. But the sea lion was stressed and had no access to water beyond mud puddles, she said.

Finally, the scientists decided that it would be safest to sedate the sea lion and put in place a rescue mission that involved marine mammal experts as well as volunteers from the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium and other agencies.

Volunteers from SEARHC with a front-end loader pushed down trees in a stand of alder to clear a path to the sea lion. Then, at about 1 p.m. Monday, a NOAA veterinarian darted the sea lion, who was resting in the alders, Raum-Suryan said.

Once they were confident the more than 1,500 pound animal was asleep, the rescuers gently rolled the sleeping sea lion into the bucket of the front-end loader, and from there into the back of a flatbed truck.

Rescuers drove the animal to Sitka's harbor.

Officials dotted the animal with pink paint on his head and used Clairol hair dye to mark a number on his side to allow for tracking after release, she said. They hope to answer the "million dollar question," said Raum-Suryan: Why did the animal end up on a Sitka road in the middle of the night?

A sea lion which had been on land for four days was transported back to water after being darted, Sept. 3, 2018. (NOAA photo)

The animal's misadventure over, he was given sedation reversal drugs. When he woke, he swam away, Raum-Suryan said. The sea lion was later spotted swimming in the harbor area.

"We're hoping if he's healthy he'll go off and be a regular sea lion again," she said.

The sea lion swims back into the harbor after being on land for four days. (NOAA photo)