November 16, 2007

Arctic Seal Heads to Warm Waters, Again

LONDON - Sahara the Arctic seal keeps turning up in warmer waters. The young seal was rescued off the coast of North Africa last year, far from his native habitat in the Arctic. He was brought to Britain, nursed back to health and freed into the wild "” only to paddle in the wrong direction again.

Animal rights activists now hope to give Sahara one more chance to avoid life in captivity.

"We're disappointed that he headed south and not back up north," said Tamara Cooper, an animal care supervisor at the National Seal Sanctuary in southern England. "But we're relieved that he's safe and well."

The rescue attempt began last year for Sahara, a hooded seal so named because of the inflatable bulge on the nose of the adult male. He was only a few months old when he washed up on the shore of Morocco "” far from his normal migratory zone. The animal normally mates near Iceland and Greenland, and usually ranges south as far as northern Spain.

Weak and probably sick, Sahara looked a bit worse for wear when he was found, having lost much of his fur, Cooper told The Associated Press.

"We think he left a breeding area in Iceland and got completely lost and followed the shelf down to Morocco," she said. "He hadn't learned to feed himself and he became weak."

From Morocco, Sahara was taken to Loro Parque, an animal park on the Canary Islands, Cooper said. There, he was named Sahara, apparently because he had been found near the Sahara Desert.

But Loro Parque didn't have the type of seals to socialize Sahara and teach him vital skills, such as how to compete for fish, Cooper said. So in April, the seal was flown to the National Seal Sanctuary in southern England.

"He learned to fight for his fish, lost a lot of tubby weight and put on some muscle, which was just what we wanted," she said.

The sanctuary attached a satellite tag to Sahara's neck, drove him to northern Scotland and released him Oct. 10 from a boat about four miles off the Orkney Isles.

Sahara initially headed toward Iceland, but when the sea became more shallow he turned around and swam south.

He was found Sunday in the bay of Ondarroa, 45 miles east of the Spanish port city of Bilbao, and was filmed by a Basque television station.

From Ondarroa, Sahara was taken to a rescue facility in San Sebastian, Spain, where his health was being checked, Cooper said.

In the last 10 years, she said, some hooded seals have begun heading far south of the Arctic, prompting scientists to wonder why and leading to theories that they may be following ocean currents or fish movements. But no one knows why Sahara keeps going south.

Cooper dismissed suggestions that seals like Sahara like warmer waters, saying hooded seals have very thick blubber. "They shouldn't even feel the cold," she said.