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News / Northwest

Northwest scientists rescue fur seal pup on Olympic Peninsula beach during research excursion

By Vonnai Phair, The Seattle Times
Published: February 16, 2023, 10:21am

For four Northwest scientists, a research excursion on a remote beach on the Olympic Peninsula unexpectedly turned into a lifesaving mission to rescue a fur seal pup.

On a wet and windy January day, Shawn Larson, Seattle Aquarium senior conservation research manager, and Veronica Padula, research scientist for Clean Seas Program, set out for Sand Point, the aquarium said online.

The pair planned to meet a team from the Oregon Coast Aquarium — Brittany Blades, curator of marine mammals, and Ashley Griffin-Stence, senior mammalogist — to observe sea otters as a training exercise and part of ongoing research.

The weather called for high seas, rain and high winds, but the four scientists decided to continue their expedition — a stroke of luck for the seal pup.

Here’s how the discovery and rescue unfolded, according to the aquarium.

In heavy rain gear, the group met at a trailhead and hiked 3 miles to the beach. Despite the weather and a very high tide, the team was met with the sight of many sea otters in the water offshore, including mothers and pups.

The scientists suddenly heard a cry of distress and began to scan the water for a pup in need of its mom. They noticed the sound was coming from the beach behind them and began to follow the cries.

“In my 22 years of doing this work, I’ve never seen a northern fur seal pup on the beach,” Larson said in the aquarium’s statement.

“You could tell that something was wrong with it,” Padula said. “It looked like it was struggling somehow.”

The group realized the pup was entangled in material wrapped around its neck.

Larson, with a single bar of service on her phone, called the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network, which typically responds when a marine mammal is stranded or injured.

Given the remote location, it would have taken responders hours to arrive on scene. NOAA granted the scientists permission to save the pup themselves. All four scientists are marine mammal biologists and have specific experience handling and rehabilitating entangled fur seals, according to the aquarium.

“This time of year, no one goes down there,” Larson said. “No one else would have known what to do in that situation.”

While two members of the group secured the pup’s body, Larson, using a pair of scissors from her first aid kit, cut the loop of elastic, similar to what you’d find in a garden glove, stretched to its limit around the pup’s neck.

“If we hadn’t been able to remove the elastic, the animal likely would have died,” Larson said. “He was already starting to look a little lean, an indication that he wasn’t able to eat well, and the material could have also restricted his breathing.”

Once freed, the pup quickly made his way back to the water.

Northern fur seals, listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, spend the majority of their lives at sea. The animals only come ashore for the summer breeding season on islands in the icy waters of the North Pacific and Bering Sea, or if they’re injured or ill, the aquarium said.

To learn more about Northern fur seals, check out seattleaquarium.org/animals/northern-fur-seals or visit Chiidax and Flaherty, the two seals who call the Seattle Aquarium home.