An emaciated young harbor seal found stranded and nearly strangled by a fishing net in Bermuda in February has been nursed back to health at the National Aquarium in Baltimore and will be set free this week.
The seal, named Hamilton after Bermuda's capital city, has been in the care of the aquarium's Marine Animal Rescue Team since March. On Thursday the team's staff and volunteers plan to set him free from a beach in Delaware.
"We're set up to handle [crowds], and we invite the public to see the seal first-hand and learn a little bit about seal behavior," said Jennifer Dittmar, the aquarium's stranding coordinator. "We want to let them know that seals are regular visitors to Maryland."
This particular seal, however, was far from Maryland beaches when he stranded. The island of Bermuda is 716 miles east southeast of Ocean City and unaccustomed to such visitors.
This was only the fourth seal of any species to strand there since the 1870s, according to Dr. Ian Walker, a veterinarian and curator of the Bermuda Aquarium Museum and Zoo, who said the event made all the local papers.
"We're surrounded by coral reefs here, and it's very unusual to see a harbor seal swimming around," he said. "It's something that's completely out of place."
There was a report of a seal stranding in the 1870s. But the other three have occurred within the last five years. Walker said one explanation is that "gyres and eddies" spin off the Gulf Stream to the west of the island, taking the seals with them. "They're out at sea, looking for a place to rest," and come ashore on the island's beaches, he said.
When Walker and his team responded, they found what looked like a small juvenile, with a noose of commercial monofilament netting wrapped tightly around his neck.
"It had cut into his flesh, 270 degrees around his neck, and he had an open wound all the way around," Walker recalled. "The only place that was not constricted was his airway, so he was able to breathe. But if he had continued to grow, it would have strangled him completely."
Lost and abandoned fishing gear causes similar problems for many species, from whales to turtles, Walker said.
Walker and his staff weighed the seal at 60 pounds, cut the net free and nursed his wounds. But they lacked the manpower or the facilities for the lengthy rehabilitation needed for eventual release.
So Walker, a Bermudian who worked at the National Aquarium until 2004, called on his colleagues here, and friends at Federal Express, which donated the cost of flying the animal to Baltimore.
By the time the seal left Bermuda on March 24, his weight had increased to 115 pounds, Walker said, and he was "eating us out of house and home."
In Baltimore, veterinarians continued to treat several abscesses at injection sites on his back, and worked to prepare him for release in no more than three months. "We don't like to keep them longer than that, or they get used to being fed," Dittmar said.
The seal was housed at the aquarium's Fells Point rehabilitation facility, in a small plastic pen with a small pool and high, translucent walls. That limits his view of people, she said, "so he doesn't associate food with humans; it helps to keep him wild."
With medical care and nine pounds of herring and capelin daily, the seal has packed on more weight, Dittmar said. At 139 pounds on Monday, he looked fat and lively, eagerly diving into the tiny pool to retrieve fish hidden inside a curved section of plastic pipe.
Early on Thursday, a crew of Aquarium staff and volunteers will assemble to truck Hamilton to the Delaware Seashore State Park.
The seal will carry a satellite transmitter, glued to his back, so scientists can track his movements for as long as the glue holds out. He is scheduled for release at 10 a.m., near the Conquest entrance to the park, north of the Indian River inlet. Park entry fees will apply.