Right place at right time: Training day turns into northern fur seal rescue mission

A sea otter observation excursion at Neah Bay recently turned into a rescue of a northern fur seal pup that had become entangled in material wrapped around its neck.

A sea otter observation excursion at Neah Bay recently turned into a rescue of a northern fur seal pup that had become entangled in material wrapped around its neck.
Seattle Aquarium

A field excursion led by Seattle Aquarium researchers along the Olympic Peninsula quickly turned into a life-saving mission.

Seattle Aquarium’s Senior Conservation Research Manager Shawn Larson was leading a sea otter observation excursion alongside Research Scientist for Clean Seas Program Veronica Padula. The Oregon Coast Aquarium’s Curator of Marine Mammals Brittany Blades and Senior Mammologist Ashley Griffin-Stence were participating in the field work when they heard distressed cries nearby. Just up the beach was a young northern fur seal entangled with material wrapped tightly around its neck.

“In my 22 years of doing this work, I’ve never seen a northern fur seal pup on the beach,” Larson said.

The team immediately jumped into action, following standard protocol and contacting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Typically, when a marine mammal is reported stranded or injured, a network partner responds to assess the animal and determine the best course of action. However, this was an atypical situation. The team was in a remote location on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and network responders would take many hours to arrive on scene.

Dr. Larson said the remoteness of Neah Bay wasn’t lost on her.

“This time of year, no one goes down there,” she said. “No one else would have known what to do in that situation.”

The team of marine mammal experts received authorization from NOAA officials to assist the fur seal. Larson used a pair of scissors from a first-aid kit to cut the restriction from around the fur seal’s neck, while Blades restrained its head and Griffin-Stence restrained its body.

The culprit was an elastic piece of cloth, similar to the wrist opening of a garden glove. Once the fur seal was released, it quickly made its way towards the water.

“It was that northern fur seal’s lucky day, to strand behind four marine mammal biologists specifically experienced with handling and rehabilitating entangled fur seals,” Blades said.

Northern fur seals are found along the north Pacific Ocean. This species spends a majority of its time at sea, coming to land just for the summer breeding season, or if they are injured or ill. The northern fur seal is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Anyone who sees a marine mammal that needs help on the beach should contact the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries marine mammal stranding network to report details by calling 1-866-767-6114. Do not approach a marine mammal or allow pets to go near it. Besides the risk of spreading diseases, people could unintentionally hurt an animal’s chances of being able to recover and return to its habitat.

About the Seattle Aquarium

Founded in 1977 and located on Pier 59 in the heart of Seattle, Washington, the nonprofit Seattle Aquarium serves as the largest platform for ocean conservation and engagement in the Pacific Northwest. With a mission of Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment, it leads educational, conservation and regional research initiatives for a healthier planet. A thriving and vibrant Aquarium is a key part of Seattle. Help support the Aquarium by donating at SeattleAquarium.org/donate.