Under a slate gray sky and relentless rainfall, two 45-pound harbor seals hopped from the shores of Kenai North Beach into Cook Inlet on Thursday morning.
While 40 or so people wearing rain jackets in every color of the rainbow looked on, harbor seals Tuber and Darth Tater were released from the care of the Alaska SeaLife Center. The harbor seal pups were rescued from Kenai and Nikiski, respectively, earlier this year and admitted to the center’s Wildlife Response Program.
Staff with the Alaska SeaLife Center, who carried the seals out in what looked like large dog kennels, stopped on the shore and asked onlookers to take “five large steps back” so that the seals did not get overwhelmed while en route to the water. As the seals were scooched from their crates, large black eyes swept the crowd.
Hopping on their stomachs, the seals were welcomed by the waves and swam quickly from the shore. Both Tuber and Darth Tater stayed near the beach, poking their heads above the surface and looking back at the humans on the beach.
Among those huddled on the beach Thursday were Alfie, Evie and Clarke Jones, who watched the seal release with their mom. The seals, they said, were smaller than expected, and the trio shouted every time Tuber or Darth Tater poked their heads above the surface.
Darth Tater, a female, was rescued in late May after people saw her stranded on a crowded Nikiski fishing beach for several hours and called the center. Upon admittance to the Wildlife Response Program, center staff estimated that she was less than two days old and found that she was suffering from dehydration.
Tuber, a male, was rescued in June in Kenai alongside four other harbor seal pups from other Kenai Peninsula communities. The Alaska SeaLife Center reported in a press release announcing the seals’ rescue that all were found to be dehydrated, underweight and still had their umbilical cords attached.
Alaska SeaLife Center staff who attended Thursday’s release told attendees that both seals arrived at the center weighing about 15 pounds, and had since grown to about 45 pounds.
Per the Alaska SeaLife Center, harbor seals are one of the most abundant pinnipeds — carnivorous aquatic mammals — in the Northern Hemisphere and have a circumpolar range, meaning they are found around the North and South poles. Though harbor seal populations are considered to be stable around the world, the species is considered “depleted” in Alaska, according to the center.
Male harbor seals typically grow to between 4 and 5 feet long and weigh between 220 and 330 pounds. Female harbor seals grow to between 4 and 5 feet long and usually weigh between 120 and 250 pounds.
More information about the Alaska SeaLife Center and harbor seals can be found at alaskasealife.org.