Seal orphans make epic ocean journeys in opposite directions

Posted: Friday, September 24, 2004

ANCHORAGE (AP) Two orphaned ringed seal pups released near Nome have taken opposite paths in their return to the wild.

The seal pups were nursed to health this summer at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward and released last month.

Satellites tracked one pup 500 miles through the Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean toward an area south of Russia's Wrangel Island, where other ringed seals congregate.

The other pup swam southeast on a 600-mile tour through the Bering Sea into Bristol Bay toward the Alaska Peninsula.

''The two of them were raised together and were released at the exact same time at the same beach, and they just broke up,'' said Russ Andrews, a marine mammal biologist who specializes in developing new tracking technology at the SeaLife Center. ''The one (that went to Russian waters) was on a beeline and just kept going. He was really navigating. What was he looking for?''

The SeaLife Center named one seal Swingley, after four-time Iditarod Sled Dog Race champion Doug Swingley, and other Seavey, after 2004 champ and Seward resident Mitch Seavey. The Iditarod begins in Anchorage and ends in Nome.

Swingley the seal headed to Russia.

''Basically they just flew along the same route that the Iditarod Trail goes, and when they got to Nome, Swingley just kept on going,'' said SeaLife spokesperson Jason Wettstein. ''And the other one may be on the way back to Seward. That's Seavey the seal. He's made the longer trip.''

The SeaLife Center staff also nursed a walrus, a sea otter and two harbor seals this summer, said veterinary rehab technician Tim Lebling.

Little is known about the migratory habits or population of the fat ringed seals, shaped somewhat like giant footballs.

Previous satellite tracking has found they can travel hundreds of miles, even into thick pack ice, in pursuit of krill and small cod.

Seavey was a thin 3-week-old male weighing about 17.5 pounds when found on a beach outside Unalakleet in May, Lebling said. Swingley, also male, was younger and scrawnier when picked up outside Nome near Safety in June, weighing only about 10.5 pounds.

While both seals were dehydrated and undernourished, they soon proved feisty, Lebling said.

''The great thing about both of them is they were actually pretty aggressive,'' Lebling said. ''They didn't bite anybody, but they definitely tried. Seavey was more aggressive than Swingley in that he stayed wild the whole time. He didn't like humans.''

By early August, Swingley weighed more than 55 pounds and Seavey at least 70 pounds.

Andrews and staff glued one-ounce transmitters smaller than a deck of cards to their fur and the seals were released Aug. 10 into Norton Sound.

Over the next month, the devices broadcast a radio signal used by polar satellites to estimate each seal's location.

To save battery life, the transmitters switch on only when the animal surfaces and only send out signals periodically. Good satellite fixes get e-mailed to Andrews' computer in Seward.

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