Visitors to Kenai Beach on Thursday afternoon had the chance to witness a unique sight: five harbor seal pups returning to the waters of Cook Inlet after being rehabilitated at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.
The release was not broadcast to the public due to concerns about large gatherings during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but there were about a dozen Kenai residents who happened to be on the beach Thursday afternoon. They were able to watch the five pups flop out of their kennels and into the water.
One of the pups didn’t hesitate and went straight for the water as soon as the gate was lifted. Three of them lingered on the beach before diving in, and one stayed at the water’s edge for a while to soak up the attention he was getting from all the onlookers and their cameras.
The event was also filmed by a camera crew with the Nat Geo WILD series “Alaska Animal Rescue,” whose upcoming season focuses on the work being done by the SeaLife Center’s Wildlife Response program.
“This is why we live here,” Samantha Halstead, of Kenai, told the Clarion after she watched the seals flop their way towards the ocean.
Halstead said she was at the Kenai Beach with some friends for her lunch break when she noticed the camera crews bringing their equipment down to the shore. Then she saw the SeaLife staff with their red-hooded sweatshirts and realized they were getting ready to release an animal into the wild.
“Stuff like this helps people understand like, it’s not just that you can come and see animals. It’s rehabilitation. It’s education,” Halstead said. “I can’t imagine my kids and their kids not being able to go to the SeaLife Center and have that education. I had pictures come up a few days ago from old field trips and squid dissections. What kid gets to do that?”
The SeaLife Center had even more reason to celebrate than just the rehabilitated seal pups. The nonprofit has reached its fundraising goal of $2 million almost a month ahead of schedule, which means they avoided a permanent shutdown this year.
Halstead said her family has been longtime supporters of the SeaLife Center. When she heard the news of their financial troubles she started to spread the word and even got family members as far away as Arizona to donate.
“When they come up to visit from Arizona, the question is always ‘When are we going to the SeaLife Center?’” Halstead said. “So even people from out of town have donated, and this is why you do it. I mean look at that.”
Tara Reimer, CEO of the SeaLife Center, said on Thursday that they are continuing to fundraise, and another donation-matching campaign is set to launch next week. Reimer also said they have yet to meet their goal of 5,000 active memberships, but at just over 4,500, they’re pretty close.
“My personal goal is another million dollars,” Reimer said. “But that’s not an official goal, that’s Tara’s personal goal.”
Husbandry Director Lisa Harttman said on Thursday that the five seals were the most they had ever released at once.
“One of our vets went back and looked at the records and found one time in 2003 that we released four at once,” Harttman said.
Jane Belovarac, who is the curator of the Wildlife Response program, said that this was the first year that they happened to get five harbor seals that all came from Cook Inlet, as normally they rescue animals from all over coastal Alaska.
“Because of that, we took advantage of it and, once the seals were healthy enough, we put them in a big pool together so they could learn how to compete, and we gave them live salmon periodically, because they learn by instinct, by practice,” Belovarac said. “And they all stranded for a different reason. We had dehydration, malnutrition, one of them had some digestive issues. Number four, she gave us some scares ‘cause she would get hypoglycemic, and she actually had a seizure once. But she grew out of it, and we say that her liver ‘kicked in’. I think she was just a little bit premature and it took a little bit for her liver to kick in and start doing its job.”
The five seal pups were transported from Seward in the SeaLife Center’s Wildlife Response van, but their crates had to be carried by hand down the sandy beach to avoid getting the van stuck. Two of the seals had trackers strapped to their backs, which Belovarac said would be used to see if the pups stick together or split up once they’re out in the ocean.
A few animal control officers with the city of Kenai were on scene to help carry the animals down to the water. The officers — Jessica Hendrickson, Edwin Creekmore and Kris Giordano — were actually responsible for rescuing one of those seal pups from the very same beach earlier this year.
“It was back in June, we found it down past the Forest Drive walkway,” Creekmore said. “It was pretty thin when we got it.”
When someone calls the SeaLife Center’s 24-hour stranding hotline to report a stranded marine mammal, the center will coordinate with any local agencies or individuals available to rescue the animal and bring it to Seward. In the case of the seal on the Kenai Beach, Kenai Animal Control were the ones called in to help.
“It’s been amazing, the opportunity to work with (the SeaLife Center) and have the community care enough to have called in the first place,” Hendrickson said. “They saw something that needed help, and it’s just really neat to be able to see it come full-circle.”
Another one of the seals’ rescuers, Taya Swick of Kenai, got to watch the pup she helped save return to its home in the wild. Swick said she was with her family while they were set-net fishing off the coast of Kalgin Island earlier this year when she found the pup. Her dad, Jeff Swick, said that a neighbor with cell service made the call to the SeaLife Center, but Taya stayed with the pup while waiting for it to be picked up.
“I sat with it for over five hours, making sure it didn’t get hurt or anything. Protecting it,” Swick said. “Its ribs were showing, it was really skinny, and it didn’t have any fat on it.”
Swick said she visited the pup a few times while it was recovering at the SeaLife Center. Its official name is Bluebell, but to Swick, it would always be Baby K — The “K” stands for Kalgin Island.
“I’m happy that it finally got back in the ocean,” Swick said.