August 30, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 35

Rescued baby seal released into wild

Tracy Mikowski was reunited Friday with a harbor seal pup she found when it was a premature newborn, clinging to life on a Chilkat Inlet beach May 2.

Four months older and 57 pounds heavier, the seal named Olympia was directed into the wild at a north Douglas Island beach by Mikowski and a crowd of onlookers. “It was really emotional when I got to see her again,” said Mikowski, a former zookeeper who works as dogcatcher for Haines Animal Rescue Kennel.

Appearing unsure, Olympia was coaxed out of her crate by Mikowski and a child from the local Montessori school who was chosen from the crowd.

“Her nose was right at the crate door. She thought about it, looked out and turned around. We lifted up the back of the crate and scootched her out,” Mikowski said.

The seal was released alongside another orphaned seal from Southeast named Picabo. The seals took about 30 minutes to reach the water, and workers from the Alaska Sea Life Center used bright, orange barriers to help guide the way. “I don’t think (the seals) knew what to do,” Mikowski said.

Both seals are tagged on their rear flippers and Picabo wears a satellite tracking device that will fall off in about a year.

Although Olympia lived only a short time in the wild, an official with the Seward-based center was confident she would adapt. “So much of them is so hard-wired. They definitely find their way,” said Tim Lebling, stranding coordinator at the center.

Olympia spent four months at the center, eating as many as 80 herring each day shot from a tube into her tank to prevent habituation to people. Her last month was spent in a tank with other seals from Southeast, a kind of test to see that a rehabilitated animal can compete for food against others of its kind, Lebling said.

“It was a really special day. I’m really grateful I got to be there,” said Mikowski.

When the seal was found, it had not yet developed the necessary coating for immediate swimming in the ocean. Friday’s release spot was chosen for its protection from boat traffic.