Elephant seal spotted in Homer

Posted: Sunday, April 29, 2007

ANCHORAGE - An elephant seal was recently spotted in Homer, the third consecutive year the animal has made an appearance at a Kenai Peninsula harbor.

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The latest seal has been named Sandy by her rescuers at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.

By this time of year, the elephant seals that dive for food deep and far offshore in the Gulf of Alaska should be molting and sunning themselves on some California sand. And marine biologists say it's rare - unknown before this decade - for an elephant seal to haul ashore in Southcentral Alaska.

But there was Sandy, ambling up a boat launch on the Homer Spit, doe eyes staring about, skin visibly chafed from the yearly molt.

Last year another elephant seal went up a ramp in the mouth of the Kenai River, and in 2005 one of the animals swam ashore in downtown Seward, said Tim Lebling, marine mammal stranding coordinator at the SeaLife Center. Another elephant seal visited Seward in 2000.

The animals could be lingering because their prey distribution or timing is changing, according to Lebling. He is asking boaters and beachcombers to call in anything that looks larger or different from the area's more familiar harbor seals.

"It definitely raises the eyes - to start looking into it and collecting as much data as we can," he said. "It's a sign of some ocean change."

In the late 1990s scientists also were curious when elephant seals showed up along the Aleutian coastline, although Lebling noted that satellite tracking data indicate the seals typically feed closer to the shoreline there than in Southcentral Alaska.

For volunteer rescuer Kyra Wagner, the encounter with Sandy was her first effort at helping rescue a sea creature.

"We thought it was a huge, old, funny-looking harbor seal," Wagner recalled of her arrival at the harbor after getting a call from a friend who is licensed to rescue marine mammals.

Males have the long, floppy snouts that give the species its name, and this one's nose is only slightly swollen compared to a harbor seal's, she said.

"It makes you realize how easy it would be to mistake an elephant seal for a harbor seal if you're out in the water," she said. "People could be seeing them all the time and have no clue."

Scientists hope to glue a tracking device to her and see where she goes next. Last year's visitor did not have enough fur regrown to do that, and the previous elephant seal shook its device after swimming to Oregon.

It is especially unusual to see a female elephant seal haul out this far north, according to a researcher at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle. The lab's previous tracking efforts indicate females don't follow the males to the Gulf of Alaska after breeding in California, but usually stop somewhere off the Canadian border with Washington, said biologist Sharon Melin.

Perhaps short-term environmental changes such as an El Nino shift the areas where prey is available for a time, Melin said. Also, there are increasing numbers of the once-critically endangered seals, so there are more of them looking for places to feed.

"It certainly is the case that the population is increasing," Melin said. "It wouldn't surprise me if they were also expanding their foraging range."

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