The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward admitted two abandoned harbor seal pups earlier this month after they were found on a beach in Kasilof.
Officials say the pups have been growing and eating in the center’s care, and vets hope to release them back to the ocean soon.
The Wildlife Response Team at the SeaLife Center got a call in early June from a fisherman who spotted a skinny baby harbor seal on the beach.
“It just so happens that when he was talking to us about that pup, another pup came out of the water nearby,” said Jane Belovarac, the wildlife response curator at the center, which rescues and rehabilitates marine mammals like harbor seals.
Belovarac said photos of the two pups showed they were emaciated and still had their umbilical cords attached.
Because there was no adult seal around, the center went ahead and got authorization from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association to bring the newborn pups into the rehab center for care, she said.
“I’d say 95% of the time we never know what happens to the mom when we have a pup that’s by itself,” Belovarac said. “We try to give a certain amount of time, depending on the species, for the mom to reunite with the pups, but sometimes if there’s danger to the pup or there’s danger of public interacting with the pup, and the pup definitely needs help, we’ll bring it in. But ideally, we try to give the pup time to reunite with its mom.”
Belovarac said that’s because often, as pups get older, seal moms might leave them on the beach or in the water to go hunting before coming back for them.
“So that’s why when we have people who say they have an animal on the beach, and we establish that it’s a baby, one of the first questions we ask is, ‘Are there any adults in the area? Is there any interference going on?’” she said.
In this case, she said, the first pup – a female who appeared to be just a couple days old – was too skinny, indicating she hadn’t been fed by her mother. And the second one, a male, was brand new and didn’t have an adult in sight.
There are a number of reasons they could have been abandoned, according to Belovarac: The pups could have been separated from their moms or something could have happened to them. Or, she said, the moms could have been young or sick and unable to take care of the babies.
“Most of the time, we never know what was the circumstance that caused the animals to be separated from their mom,” she said.
Harbor seals are common in Southcentral Alaska, Belovarac said, particularly when the salmon start to run. People often see them from the beach or when they’re kayaking.
Harbor seals start to pup in May, and these are the first seals the SeaLife Center has brought in this year. But Belovarac said it’s hard to say how many more abandoned pups they might get.
“Some seasons in rehab, we’ve only had like two seals, and other seasons, we’ve had like 16 seals.” she said. “So it’s definitely common for us to get at least a couple of orphans every year. But how many we get is just the luck of the draw.”
She said the SeaLife Center plans to release the two baby harbor seals back into the ocean, but they first have to meet certain weight and maturity requirements from NOAA.
The two rescued in early June are off to a good start at just a few weeks old, she said, with the male pup having eaten his first fish all on his own on Thursday.
“Usually by the end of the summer, they meet all those milestones, and we can let them go back into their home in the ocean,” Belovarac said.
For now, they’re in two separate pools at the SeaLife Center. But she said they’ll soon be in a pool together where they’ll learn to compete and hunt for fish.
The rehab area is off limits to the public so the animals don’t get used to people, she said. But people can get updates on the pups by following the Alaska SeaLife Center’s Facebook or Instagram page.