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Broken flipper healed, seal released into Great Bay after nine-month recovery
Press of Atlantic City
Posted: Wednesday, December 21, 2011 1:37 pm | Updated: 7:14 pm, Wed Dec 21, 2011.
By WALLACE McKELVEY, Staff Writer |
TUCKERTON - After more than nine months recovering from a broken flipper at the Marine Mammal Standing Center, the female gray seal was hesitant to brave the waters of Great Bay.
She ambled out of her crate Wednesday, sniffed at the water and made her way back up the rocks. It took a few gentle nudges with a beach cart before the nearly year-old pup committed to her new life in the sea.
"If you think about it, she's spent more time with us than anywhere else," field stranding technician Bill Deerr said.
Deerr, 30, of the Cardiff section of Egg Harbor Township, said most seals spend less than half as long at the Brigantine center.
The seal's ordeal began last winter, when it was bit by a shark off the coast. She was rescued in March from a beach near Manasquan, Monmouth County.
Deerr said recovery was complicated by a broken bone that kept reinfecting the wound. Surgery in October removed the bone and allowed the seal to heal.
Stranding Center Director Bob Schoelkopf said the seal - which was never named, as per center protocol - recovered quickly from the surgery.
"She gained her strength back to the point she's causing a wake in the (center's) pool, throwing up waves," he said. "She's playing and swimming, which is a good sign because that was our main concern."
Schoelkopf said the team chose Great Bay to release her because of its secluded location, saying it would give her a quiet bay to acclimate herself.
"She's been in captivity so long, we want her to look around, smell the salt water and get used to the area," he said.
Her hesitance - the seal dallied on the shore for about 10 minutes - is common for gray seals, Schoelkopf said.
"Harbor seals can make a B-line out of the inlet," he said. "But I've had gray seal pups turn around, come back and get in their cage or under the truck because they're not sure where they are."
The same morning the center released the seal back into the wild, a decomposed harbor seal washed up in Brigantine - the first seal call of the 2012 season.
"We got rid of the last seal of 2011 on the same day as 2012's first," Schoelkopf said. "It's a first for us in 33 years, to have the two tied together."
He said the gap between seasons has disappeared because more marine species are venturing outside their ranges to find food. And 2011 was one of the busiest for the center, with 196 rescue calls.
"With ice melting, more animals are showing up on our shores," he said. "It may be too soon to accurately say, but (global warming) seems to be the assumption of a lot of people."
Laura Culbert, the veterinary surgeon who lent her expertise to operate on the seal, brought her family down from Millstone Township, Monmouth County, to watch her patient's release.
Watching the seal venture out with its healed flipper was bittersweet, said Culbert, 50, who typically operates on captive and domestic animals.
"It's amazing to see her out there," she said. "It's the best feeling in the world."
Deerr said it's also bittersweet for the stranding center team.
While they make every effort not to develop an attachment to the animal and vice versa - the seal, for instance, was never fed in the presence of a human - he said it's difficult not to feel an attachment to an animal they have watched after for so long.
Deerr said he hopes the seal will readjust to the sea, her natural habitat.
"It's always a concern, but we've done everything we can at this point," he said. "Now it's up to her."
If you want to helpFor more information or to donate to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, visit www.marinemammalstrandingcenter.org