Harp seal released at Sandy Hook
On a sunny morning at the Gateway National Recreation Area in Sandy Hook on Monday, a rehabilitated Harp Seal returned to the ocean and began her long swim back to the Arctic.
Earlier on Monday, the seal took a two-hour drive from the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, where she had been coaxed back to health after being found struggling on a beach in Maryland. Park rangers carted the seal, in her ice-lined crate, in the back of a pickup to the water’s edge. Once there, the door was opened, and in less than a minute the seal shimmied her way into the water.
“The release went very well,” said Sheila Dean, co-director of the MMSC. “She went right back into the water, which is great because sometimes they turn and go in the other direction.”
The seal was released in Sandy Hook because the MMSC team wanted to send her off as far north as possible without leaving New Jersey. A crowd of about 50 people watched the seal return to the wild.
“It’s really a rewarding situation,” Jay Pagel, a senior field technician for MMSC, said of the release. “Getting to see these animals come in, knocking on death’s door in many cases, then to see them go out fat and happy and healthy is just a great feeling.”
The seal had been spotted on beaches in Maryland and Delaware and was being tracked by the National Aquarium in Baltimore, when they noticed she was losing weight. A team from the aquarium rescued the seal in Ocean City, Maryland on February 22. She was found emaciated and eating sand.
Harp Seals typically live in the Arctic Circle and migrate south for winter, though rarely do they go farther than New England.
“They belong in the Arctic,” Dean said. “They don’t belong down here in Maryland or New Jersey.”
The seal was transferred to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine two days after the rescue because the facility in Maryland couldn’t handle the large animal. She weighed about 99 pounds when she arrived at the center.
“She slept for about two weeks,” Dean said. “She would wake up and eat a little bit and go right back to sleep. She was exhausted.”
She was nursed back to health on 24 pounds of food per day; the seal now weighs more than 165 pounds. The seal was not named, because the stranding center is a short-term facility and the staff did not want to grow too attached to her.
Pagel said that because the Harp Seal population has grown since the 1970s and Arctic sea ice continues to diminish, the seals are beginning to expand their travels in search of new habitats.
“There’s quite a few of [the seals], and a lot less sea ice for them to live on,” Pagel said.
Unlike other species, these seals tend to live and travel alone, only finding partners to mate.