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Harbor seal pup rescued from La Jolla is returned to ocean home two months later

The SeaWorld San Diego rescue team returned this harbor seal pup to the water off La Jolla on June 1.
The SeaWorld San Diego rescue team returned this harbor seal pup to the water off La Jolla on June 1. About two months earlier, the pup had been found alone among rocks far from the water near Scripps Pier.
(Courtesy of SeaWorld San Diego)

After two months in rehabilitation, a harbor seal pup was returned to the ocean June 1 off La Jolla, along with a couple of feathered friends.

The pup was rescued near Scripps Pier in late March after a beach-goer called SeaWorld San Diego, whose rescue team called San Diego lifeguards to check on it.

The pup, a newborn with its umbilical cord still attached, “was not in a great spot,” said Eric Otjen, head of the SeaWorld rescue team.

Lifeguards found the pup among rocks far from the water and completely alone.

Otjen said it’s unusual for a harbor seal to be born near the pier; most are born at the Children’s Pool, and a few around the corner at South Casa Beach.

The rescued pup’s location among the rocks was “really strange,” Otjen said. Newborns can move around and swim, he said. “They’re not completely helpless.”

The pup’s age and the absence of his mother added to the urgency, Otjen said.

Once SeaWorld team members rescued the pup and took him to their facility, “his rehab was fairly straightforward,” Otjen said.

Rescuers bottle-fed the pup with a protein shake — a powdered zoologic formula watered down — for about the first week.

When this pup was found in late March, its umbilical cord was still attached.
(Courtesy of SeaWorld San Diego)

“We start off their stomachs assuming they haven’t had anything” from the mother, Otjen said. “We don’t want to blast them with fish right away.”

Slowly, the pup received less-watery formula, with rescuers adding ground-up fish to the mix.

“It becomes a fish smoothie,” Otjen said.

About 2½ weeks in, the pup began receiving thawed frozen fish.

“He caught on pretty quick,” Otjen said. Some rescued animals take longer to transition from formula to fish.

The pup quickly moved to catching live fish. “This guy … was excited,” Otjen said. The little pinniped often played with the fish before eating them, he added.

The pup was about 22 pounds when rescued — “a pretty good size for a neonate,” Otjen said — and left SeaWorld weighing about 53 pounds.

Not all went swimmingly, however, as the pup contracted an ear infection a few weeks into his rehabilitation, which necessitated him staying a couple of weeks longer than normal for a rescue, Otjen said.

With the infection treated, the pup was loaded onto a boat and released into open water to find other seals.

Otjen said rescued animals often are returned to the ocean where there is a plentiful food supply. La Jolla is such a place.

“We don’t hold their hand all the way” to the Children’s Pool, Otjen said. “We want them to figure life out a little bit.”

The pup’s left rear flipper now bears an orange tag to help SeaWorld identify him in case another rescue is needed.

The boat also carried two rescued fulmars — ocean birds resembling a “smaller, dirty seagull,” Otjen said.

Fulmars don’t frequent land as much as seagulls, he added, nor do they engage in some seagull behavior like stealing food from people.

“We get calls all the time about seagulls; it turns out they’re fulmars,” Otjen said. He further clarified that the correct term for the onshore bird is not seagull, it’s western gull.

Fulmars are more sensitive than gulls to environmental changes. SeaWorld rescuers often find fulmars without enough feathers, allowing cold water to seep into their skin, Otjen said.

SeaWorld is one of the largest marine animal rescue organizations in the world and accepts rescue calls around the clock. It has rescued more than 40,000 sick, injured and orphaned animals with the aim to return them to their natural habitat.

To report an animal in need of help, call (800) 541-7325 or email SWC.Rescue@seaworld.com. ◆