Harbor seal takes up kayaking in Prince William Sound

Posted: Monday, August 28, 2000

SOLDOTNA (AP) -- Harbor seals are supposed to haul out on beaches, not kayaks.

But a healthy specimen in Prince William Sound, nicknamed Skippy, is breaking all the rules. She has been getting a little too cozy with passing boaters all summer.

As a pup in 1999, Skippy gorged on a diet of peanut butter and powdered milk, courtesy of a well-meaning, if misinformed, kayaker in Southeast Alaska who scooped the bawling week-old pup out of the water. The kayaker mistakenly assumed it was abandoned, and young Skippy spent the next four days lounging in the belly of a kayak.

Apparently the experience created a powerful memory, one that is surprising some biologists. Now they're worried that Skippy's penchant for kayaks may make her unfit for life in the wild.

''I've never seen anything like this before. None of us have,'' said Danielle Goodrode, rehabilitation coordinator at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.

Skippy was rehabilitated last summer at the center, where she was treated for severe intestinal infections from eating human food. That's where she got the nickname Skippy Kayak. She was released as a healthy 60- to 70-pound juvenile last fall at Aialik Bay on the Kenai Peninsula.

But soon after this summer's boating season began, callers with tales of an odd harbor seal in Prince William Sound began trickling in to the center and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

If the seal's behavior didn't give it away, then the sea life center's identification tag on its flipper did. It was Skippy.

One of the callers, George Durner of Anchorage, was on a solo kayak trip in late June when Skippy hopped aboard.

Most harbor seals will poke their heads out of the water and watch passing kayakers from a respectable 50 feet away, said Durner, an experienced kayaker and zoologist who studies polar bears for the U.S. Geological Service.

''This particular animal, however, swam right up to the rudder of my boat, then straight up to the bow and passed within inches of me and a couple of times tried to climb up on top of the boat,'' Durner said. ''I was concerned because kayaks can be tippy.''

Skippy stayed with Durner's yellow kayak for four hours, once climbing on its stern a few seconds before sliding off the other side.

''This is not natural and has the potential to get the animal in trouble,'' Durner said. ''On the other hand, it's interesting to have a seal hang out with me and have the opportunity to observe one so close. The seal became my kayaking buddy for a few hours.''

And that is exactly what's so worrisome, said Kaja Brix, a wildlife biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Durner didn't go looking for the seal, but other people might do just that.

Skippy is not getting any smaller and could capsize a kayak in a couple of years as a 150- to 200-pound adult. And there's the ever-present risk of somebody shooting a seal that has lost its fear of people.

''We don't want an injury to a person or a seal,'' Brix said. ''We're keeping close tabs on this situation. If it gets to the point it's really becoming a problem, we'll likely remove it from the area and determine it to be unreleasable.''

If that happens, Skippy could ultimately be placed in a zoo or aquarium, Brix said.

Brix said she is unaware of another situation in which a harbor seal was so quickly converted into a kayak seal. Yet despite Skippy's quirks, observers say, she obviously hasn't forgotten how to hunt.

''The animal appeared rather healthy,'' Durner said. ''It seemed plump enough, and I did see it give chase to a salmon.''

Durner said he didn't feed the seal, adding that it's common knowledge among kayakers to leave wildlife alone. It also is illegal to feed or harass marine mammals, Brix said.

Brix and Goodrode described Skippy's situation as a shining example of what can go wrong when humans interfere with wildlife. ''Her story is a good no-no story,'' Goodrode said. ''Just leave 'em alone. That is our biggest message.''

Seals, born between May and June, often are weaned from their mothers by the tender age of 6 weeks, so the sight of a cute little seal pup alone on the beach or in the surf may be perfectly normal, she said.

Female seals give birth to one pup each spring and often are underwater or somewhere else foraging for seafood.

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