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KENAI - A baby elephant seal is the newest resident at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.
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Tim Lebling, a veterinary technician with the SeaLife Center, said he was surprised the animal that washed ashore near a Kenai processing plant was not a more common harbor seal. Elephant seals are a much more unusual sight in Alaska waters.
"They prefer warmer waters. Generally, these guys range from California up to the southern part of Canada," Lebling said.
There are an estimated 150,000 elephant seals in this wild range, according to the SeaLife Center. The animals stem from an 1892 colony of no more than 100 seals that remained on Guadalupe Island off the coast of Mexico's Baja California state after most of the others were slaughtered for the oil that comes from their blubber.
Nutmeg - as the animal was named by SeaLife personnel - is not the first to wind up in Alaska. Another elephant seal washed up dead in Resurrection Bay two years ago, Lebling said. The last one rescued and rehabilitated by the SeaLife Center was in 1999.
SeaLife personnel were caught off guard by Nutmeg's size.
"We weren't expecting an elephant seal and while we're estimating Nutmeg is roughly 11 months old, he's a very big boy," Lebling said.
Nutmeg weighed in at 334 pounds when he was found April 24 near a dock by workers at Pacific Star Seafoods in Kenai. As an adult, he likely will weigh 5,000 pounds.
But even as a pup he was more than the SeaLife personal could lift on their own.
"Employees at Pacific Star were fantastic. We couldn't have done it without them," Lebling said. "They used a company forklift to help us load him into a fish tote and then into our rescue vehicle."
At the SeaLife Center, Nutmeg was found to have lung parasites and a high white blood cell count. The seal was dewormed and is now being treated with antibiotics.
"With the high white count and uncharacteristic location (he was found), we feel it is a good idea to treat him for possible sickness and ensure he has a healthy start," Lebling said.
Nutmeg also is likely molting, a common physiological process for a yearling elephant seal.
Elizabeth Moundalexis, a SeaLife Center mammalogist, said a young elephant seal can slough off an entire layer of skin during a molt.
Elephant seals in molt also stop eating for roughly four to six weeks, and can lose as much as 30 pounds during the process.
"They live off of huge blubber reserves, and Nutmeg - masswise - is very round, plump and healthy," Lebling said.
Nutmeg's molt should last another month. At that point he'll be fed fish to build up his strength and deleted fat reserves. Ultimately the goal is to release him back into the wild.
"Most likely he won't be taken back to Kenai, but instead will be taken out of Resurrection Bay, into open water in the Gulf of Alaska, with the thought that he will head south," Lebling said.
The elephant seal released by the SeaLife Center in 1999 swam south to Oregon. As with that seal, Nutmeg will be fixed with a satellite tag to track his route.