August 2, 2008

Seal Stamped, Delivered

By Donita Naylor

CHARLESTOWN -- Westerly Hospital nurse manager Nancy Clarke got the honor of opening the crate to release SYPg0809.

The young male harp seal -- identified by his stranding code to remind that he is a wild animal, not an adorable, soulful, inquisitive, little lost baby -- was released from a carrier between two lines of onlookers at Blue Shutters Beach just after 8 yesterday morning.

For Clarke, the release was bittersweet. She was part of a Westerly Hospital team that performed two endoscopies to remove some of the hundreds of rocks jamming the stomach of the juvenile seal.

Rescued in Niantic, Conn., on April 2, the yearling seal was near death, suffering from pneumonia, severe dehydration and a stomach packed with stones, some of them sharp.

Janelle Schuh, stranding coordinator for Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration, explained that harp seals may have an innate behavior to eat snow and ice in their habitat of northern Canada and Greenland. The seals, hunted for the snow white fur they have as pups, swim south to feed on fish during the summer of their second year, some as far as Virginia.

Before aquarium veterinarians could begin treating him, the rocks had to go. Three gastroenterologists -- Doctors Steven R. Yolen, Bradford C. Lavigne and Barry A. Ross, along with Clarke and technicians Theresa Willis and Sharon Brown -- volunteered their proficiency, honed on hundreds of humans.

Yesterday, SYPg0809, newly outfitted with a satellite tracking device epoxied to his neck, sniffed the sides of the crate and took his time regarding about 75 people pointing almost that many cameras at him.

Encouraged toward the water by staff and volunteers from the aquarium, he seemed reluctant to cross the dry sand.

Aquarium intern Alicia Babcock, of Ashaway, urged him to get moving: "We gotta be out of here by 8:30," she said, referring to warnings that cars still in the lot when the beach opened would be charged $10.

A tongue of foam carried by a higher-than-usual wave beckoned. He flopped across the dry sand and over the rack line, leaving a double dotted line of flipper tracks. Touched by the cold moving water, he quickened his pace, spun around, then pointed himself seaward.

The water seemed to erase him, his toes disappearing last.

He surfaced once and then he was gone.

Brooke Perisho and Rylee Gillen, both 10 and from Stow, Mass., are spending the week with Perisho's grandmother, Jane Brown. They put themselves in his flippers.

"I would find another group of seals and then go up north with them," Rylee said. "I bet he's doing, like, somersaults."

To track the seal's journey, visit:

For photos of the endoscopy taken by Michael Ross, visit: http://

A crowd of about 75 onlookers gather to watch a young male harp seal released at Blue Shutters Beach in Charlestown. The seal was rescued on a beach in Niantic, Conn., suffering from pneumonia, dehydration and an ingestion of rocks in his stomach. The Providence Journal / John Freidah

Veterinarians from Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration and a team from Westerly Hospital helped nurse the seal back to health. [email protected] / (401) 277-7411

Originally published by Donita Naylor, Journal Staff Writer.

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