Two harbor seal pups who were rescued earlier this summer have returned to the wild.
The seals, named Cobalt and Admiral, spent the past two and a half months at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, gaining weight and learning to catch and eat fish.
After passing their health checks, care specialists finally decided last month it was time for the seal duo to go back into Cook Inlet.
Dozens of adults and children came to watch on an overcast afternoon at Kenai North Beach. They were quiet as SeaLife Center staff opened the seals’ crates and the pups started to make their way to the ocean’s edge. Staff had warned the crowd to hold their applause and cheers until the pups were safely in the bay.
“We don’t want to spook them,” said Savannah Costner, an animal care specialist with the center’s wildlife response department. “This is the most people they’ve ever seen in their entire lives. So it’s going to be a little bit scary for them.”
The release only took about five minutes.
Admiral — a 50-pound male — booked it straight to the water, where he then waited for his sister Cobalt, who wasn’t so sure about the people hovering nearby.
She stared at the quiet audience and slowly waddled to the bay. There were other harbor seals swimming in the surf nearby.
As soon as the seals were in the water, the onlookers cheered.
The seals’ release back to the ocean was a long time coming. They were newborns when they were spotted in early June hauled out on a Kasilof beach, their moms nowhere to be found. And they were in rough shape — emaciated and dehydrated. Cobalt even had rocks in her stomach.
They spent all summer at the SeaLife Center. And when they got released, the only evidence of their time at the center was a small blue tag with an identification number on their tail fins.
Costner said it’s special every time the center releases a rehabilitated animal back into the wild, but there was something extra sweet about seeing Cobalt and Admiral swim away. She helped care for and train the seals and oversaw their release.
“We all put our time into it, our love, our hopes and dreams into these animals and we want the best for them,” she said. “I think the fact that we had to do emergency medicine on Cobalt her first day with us and the fact that we got her here to this day is crazy. It’s amazing.”
For release day, the SeaLife Center invited volunteers and members to the long sandy beach. It was the first time in several years the center has held a public release because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Marie Mills is a member of the center and found out about the event when she got an email from staff. She loves pinnipeds – especially seals – more than almost anything.
“They’re cute and fat and chunky and jiggly. They’re just amazing,” she said, giggling on the beach.
Mills drove more than three-and-a-half hours from Wasilla for the release.
“I just love that the SeaLife Center can rehabilitate them and put them back in their home and not just stick them in a zoo somewhere,” she said.
There were some younger guests at the event too.
Hildy Coleman just turned seven and is in first grade. She was wearing a blue hoodie and boots as she pointed at the heads of harbor seals in the bay, hoping to spot Cobalt and Admiral who were just released.
Hildy’s mom took her and her older sister out of school in Kenai to watch the pups return home to Cook Inlet.
She said watching them wobble back to the ocean was kind of “funny.”
“People took three steps back and then [Cobalt] started to go,” Hildy said. “She stopped a little bit, and then she went again. [In the water], they kept on diving, then coming back up and diving again.”
Sasha Coleman – Hildy’s mom – was born and raised in the area and said there’s no place like it. Although her kids just started the school year, she said she didn’t want them to miss this.
“It’s just a neat experience to see,” she said. “It’s really, really cool to think how they literally were just off of our beach next to our home. They got rehabilitated, and they’re back in the wild again. And they’re super cute, too. Not a lot of kids get to see this kind of stuff.”
As the Colemans pointed at the seal heads popping up in the bay, Mills – who came from Wasilla – stood further down the beach in the surf, her back turned to the other onlookers.
“Seeing them both get out into the water was amazing,” she said. “There’s a lot of seals out there right now. I’ve counted at least four. And so they’re with their own kind out there. It’s amazing. It just makes your heart feel happy that they’re home.”
While this might have been Mills’ first in-person seal release, she said it won’t be her last. Her love for seals runs deep. She even wrote a song about it.