Step aside, renowned fat bears of Katmai National Park and Preserve: There’s a new chunky mammal in the spotlight in Alaska this week.
An out-of-place Steller sea lion stopped traffic in the Prince William Sound community of Valdez on Friday morning, making for a memorable shift for patrol Sgt. Chad Clements with the Valdez Police Department.
Clements said officers began getting calls about a sea lion loose on land near the harbor at around 6:30 a.m.
Soon, they received a call that the sea lion had moved to the parking lot of an RV park near the local Captain Joe’s Gas Station — even farther from the water than where it was initially spotted.
“It was like, ‘All right, he’s going the wrong way,’ ” Clements said.
The sergeant, along with a few other officers, went out to locate the sea lion. Police officers used their cars in an attempt to herd it toward the water, sounding their sirens every once in a while to move the wayward mammal along.
They could tell it was tired.
“It took a while,” Clements said. “I mean, he’d move along and then he would kind of lay down.”
It was Friday morning, around the time school starts, so it was busy in town. By the time officers shepherded the sea lion to the Richardson Highway, they had to halt traffic to allow for the lumbering behemoth to cross the street and get into the water. The RV park’s manager even offered the use of his backhoe to help usher the animal across the highway and through a swampy area.
“We did what we had to do for public safety reasons,” Clements said. “And we wanted to make sure (the sea lion) didn’t die, obviously.”
Once the sea lion returned to the water, officers thought the encounter was over. But as the animal moved across the town’s tidal flats, it returned on a different road, crossing over to the Valdez dry dock at the harbor. Officers once again had to coax the marine mammal back toward the water.
It was nice, Clements said, to finally see the animal enter the water.
Photos indicate the sea lion was likely a sub-adult male, ranging in age from 5 to 8 years old, said Kim Raum-Suryan, Steller sea lion coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration based in Juneau. At that point, they are developing a thick neck and getting bigger but aren’t fully grown, and tend to be between 1,200 and 1,700 pounds, she said. When they’re in their prime, adult males can reach weights over 2,000 pounds, Raum-Suryan said.
Sea lions making their way into Alaska towns is a rare though not unprecedented incident, she said.
The last time Raum-Suryan heard about this type of lost sea lion situation was in 2018 in Sitka, where community members spent four days trying to coax a scared Steller sea lion out of the forest and into the water. Ultimately, Raum-Suryan and others had to tranquilize the animal and took him back to the water via truck and front-end loader.
“I’m really happy to hear that the police department in Valdez was able to get this guy back into the water,” Raum-Suryan said. “That’s great news.”
Law enforcement offers in Valdez, a roughly 4,000-person community that sits at the foot of the Chugach Mountains, are no strangers to wildlife calls. Usually, though, the subjects are moose and bears. The lost sea lion was a novel situation, Clements said.
“I’ve dealt with some otters, I’ve dealt with bears, I’ve dealt with dogs, cats. It’s not like I’ve ever found like a boa constrictor or a python out there, that’d be probably the top,” Clements said. “But a sea lion, I wouldn’t forget this one.”