Heartbreak and Hope: The effort to save a seal pup

Flying Tails

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (KRON) — This Piper Saratoga arrived at Petaluma Municipal Airport in Sonoma County carrying a precious cargo from the Pacific Northwest.

Inside this dog crate, a sick and malnourished Guadalupe fur seal pup.

The rescue story starts on a quiet beach in Oregon.

The seal pup was found all alone near the town of Seaside, not far from the mouth of the Columbia River.

Guadalupe fur seals are named for their rookeries on Guadalupe island, about 200 miles off the coast of Baja.

They were hunted to near extinction for their lush fur.

And although still listed as threatened and a protected species, Guadalupe fur seals have been making a comeback in recent years expanding their range beyond Mexico and southern California.

“In the US they’re considered threatened but Mexico still considers them to be endangered. And part of that is because their whole population is dependent on this one rookery on Guadalupe Island so if something happened to that, that would decimate that species all over again,” said Dr. Cara Field of the Marine Mammal Center.

“It’s possible that spreading up to southern Oregon, a little bit into Washington could just be part of their natural range. They do cover hundreds of miles but when we see them in this condition we know it’s a bad news bad news situation,” said Caset Mclean, of Sr3 Sealife Response, Rehab And Research. 

This pup weighed less than 16 pounds, less than half what a year old pup should weigh. 

In coordination with wildfire authorities he was taken to the nearby Seaside Aquarium and then turned over to a marine mammal team near Seattle. 

“We picked up this animal, met the folks in Oregon and brought it back to Gig Harbor, Washington at a facility at World Vets that was able to triage the animal. Hold the animal for a couple of days. SR3 and World Vets worked together to create a treatment plan and keep this animal healthy until we were able to arrange transport to Sausalito, California at the Marine Mammal Center,” Mclean said. 

The Marine Mammal Center is one of the only facilities on the West Coast authorized to rehabilitate Guadalupe fur seals.

It’s a 13 plus hour drive from Seattle to Marin County, an especially tiring and grueling journey for a sick animal.

So the team reached out to another organization, Turtles Fly 2, and connected with a pilot from Oregon, Dave Sutton.

Dave and his co-pilot Gilbert Florescu flew from their home base in Roseburg, Oregon to Tacoma to pick up the pup and then turned south for the 540 mile long flight to Petaluma Airport near the Marine Mammal Center. 

“He was super cute and very pleasant and he rode like a champ and mostly slept and was very cute doing it,” Sutton said. 

A journey that would have been an all day drive was shortened to less than four hours. 

But it was hardly a smooth flight with a cold front moving through the area.

“Flight conditions were pretty rough. We were probably in solid IMC, that’s in clouds, instrument conditions probably of the day three or four hours and some ice and some turbulence and the turbulence got to the little guy a bit and Sunny, they’re calling him Sunny, puked a little bit in the turbulence and then he went back to sleep,” Sutton said. 

The Marine Mammal Center team arrived to pick up Sunny, now named Soleado – that’s sunny in Spanish.

“We’ve been able to continue to give him some nutrition so he’s getting fed a couple times a day and because he was stable enough to move up into one of our pools we’ve been giving him access to the pools, the salt water pools and he has been loving getting some swim time,” Dr. Field said. 

Soleado appeared to be on the road to recovery thanks to the hard work of people from Oregon to Washington to California. 

Five agencies banding together to save the life of one little fur seal and a volunteer pilot stepping in to speed up the effort.    

In Marin County, Soleado was teamed up with another Guadalupe fur seal pup about the same age and they were getting along well.

He wasn’t eating on his own but accepted tube feeding and was getting in and out of his pool and grooming normally.

Then came the unexpected.

Soleado suddenly died.

“I am so sorry to report that the young Guadalupe fur seal that was transported…was found dead,” Dr. Field said in an email. 

A necropsy didn’t find anything abnormal. Lungs were fine, gastrointestinal and other tissues were okay. No ulcers, parasites or anything else.

“Unfortunately in many of these cases, the malnutrition is so prolonged and severe that we cannot get them back,” Dr. Field wrote. “It seems that many times they only come ashore when they are so debilitated that there is no getting them back despite our best efforts.”

The loss of Soleado was hard to take. 

Was all that work worth the effort? 

The answer is yes. 

“A single seal or sea lion can make a major difference in what we learn when the population is so small.”

There are others that still need help and the hope is Soleado’s death leaves one more clue to solving the puzzle of these marine facilities and continues the long overdue success of a species brought back from the brink of extinction.

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