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Two harbor seal pups rescued in Kasilof graduate 'fish school’ and prepare to return to Cook Inlet

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Hope McKenney / KBBI
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Cobalt and Admiral have graduated from “fish school” and are set to be released back into Cook Inlet on Wednesday afternoon.

Admiral and Cobalt, two rescued harbor seal pups, rested on the cement in an enclosure at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward on a recent rainy afternoon. Dead fish floated beside them in the water.

SeaLife Center staff call it the “big kid pool,” and it’s the last place the silvery-spotted seal pups will live at the center before heading back to the wild on Wednesday afternoon.

It’ll be a big change for the two-and-a-half-month old pups who have called the center home for almost their entire lives. They’ve gained weight at the center and learned new skills. And now - as the SeaLife Center puts it - they’ve graduated from “fish school.”

“The full scope of fish school is by the time they go back into the ocean, they have to show that they can catch and eat a live fish,” said Savannah Costner, an animal care specialist with the wildlife response department. “These kiddos have already graduated, and they've gotten their graduation caps from fish school.”

Costner quipped: “The tassel is worth the hassle.”

Costner is part of a team that’s been working with Admiral and Cobalt since early June. The seals came to the center as newborns, after their mothers abandoned them on a Kasilof beach on the Kenai Peninsula. Costner gets to see them and train them on a daily basis.

“I like to call my position a jack of all trades,” she said, dressed in work pants, a blue Alaska SeaLife Center t-shirt and tie-dyed face mask.

During the busy summer season – when the center gets an average of seven to nine rescue patients – Costner gets to work with the rescued animals – everything from elephant seal pups and baby sea otters, to walrus pups and harbor seals, like Cobalt and Admiral.

And in the off-season, she gets to help out in the rest of the center: the mammal department, the aquarium department, the bird department. The SeaLife Center is home to 3,500 individual animals, including 13 species of birds, four species of mammals, 80 species of invertebrates and 62 species of fish.

“And so I get a little taste of everything. I think it's the best job ever,” Costner said.

But for the past few weeks, Costner has been consumed with making sure Cobalt and Admiral are prepared to go back into Cook Inlet and don’t spend the rest of their lives in captivity. She said that usually involves as little human interaction as possible, so the pups don’t bond to her or any of the other technicians. They try to keep the pups fully self-sufficient and uninterested in them.

“We keep all of our talking to a minimum. We never talk to them,” she said. “Even though we have all of this love and feeling for them, we never tell them.”

The technicians, instead, use hand signals to communicate when in the room with the pups, or step away to discuss things. They also use a technique they call “observance without disturbance,” where they’re ready to step in if something goes wrong, but where they can’t be seen by the small pinnipeds all the time.

Still, there is some hands-on time. Early on, Costner cleaned Cobalt and Admiral on a daily basis, and she gave them their meds, helped out with swim time and fed them.

“When we feed our kiddos, we try to replicate what mom would be doing out in the ocean,” she said. “So we feed them at eight, noon, four, eight and 11.”

The seals start out on a harbor seal formula – mimicking their mother’s milk. Then, at about four to six weeks, animal care specialists start introducing blended fish into the formula – essentially creating a fish milkshake. That’s a kind of precursor to getting them to actually eat pieces of fish or full fish on their own. That part can sometimes be tricky and can involve tube feeding, said Costner.

“They slowly start to associate ‘Oh, fish are food. Okay, great. Let's now eat it in the water.’ And then we kind of move from there,” she said.

But, she said, these pups understood how to eat whole fish almost immediately.

“They were rock stars. It was day one, Admiral got it right away and understood completely like, ‘Oh yeah, I know what to do. No worries, guys. You don't have to tube feed me anymore.’ And I think Cobalt got it relatively right away. By her second time, she had eaten her entire fish and she's like, ‘Okay, no more tube feeding.’”

The pups have to be able to catch fish and compete for fish before staff will consider releasing them. Part of the reason harbor seals are generally able to be released after rehabilitation is kind of surprising, said Costner. It’s because, she said, harbor seals are bad moms.

“I love harbor seals, don't get me wrong. I'm a seal girl through and through. But harbor seal moms are awful moms. They don't teach their young how to fish at all,” she said.

But in this case, for harbor seals, that’s a good thing. Because that means staff don’t have to interact with them as much for pups to learn the skills they need to be released, Costner said.

“Because there's not a lot of maternal investment, we don't have to spend a lot of time with them. And so that makes them amazing rehabilitation and release candidates,” she said.

Other species, like sea otters under the age of six months, will never be released, according to Emily Pomeroy, a seasonal animal care specialist who works with Costner.

When the center admits sea otter pups into the program, the pups aren’t able to get all the skills they generally learn from their moms. They don't learn how to forage, they don't learn how to groom themselves. Staff can’t provide them with the tools they need to make it in the ocean, and because of that, they can't release them.

“So when we do have patients that come in so critical and needing extra help, and you see them recover and thrive, and [we] release them into the ocean and see them swim away and know that there's this amazing life ahead of them and they're going to do all the things that they are meant to do as a seal, that's so amazing,” Pomeroy said. “It doesn't always happen. So when it does, it's extremely exciting and rewarding.”

Admiral and Cobalt are set to be released Wednesday afternoon in Kenai after 2.5 months of rehabilitation at the Alaska SeaLife Center.