Orphan sea lion pup making progress at SeaLife Center

Posted: Monday, June 17, 2002

SEWARD - Faith has a good appetite, a loud cry and is making marine mammal rehabilitation history in Alaska.

The pup is the first stranded Steller sea lion in the state to be rescued and nurtured back to health by rehabilitation staff at the Alaska SeaLife Center.

Faith arrived at the center June 4, said Natalie Noll, the center's rehabilitation coordinator.

Since arriving, she's gained 5 pounds. During a feeding last week, the 37-pound pup suckled two bottles of specially made formula from veterinarian student-intern Craig Pelton in less than 10 minutes.

Noll described Faith as very bony and dehydrated when she arrived at the Anchorage airport on an Alaska Airlines flight from Ketchikan.

Researchers for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game observed the week-old pup May 31 on a small beach close to a large sea lion rookery on Lowrie Island near Ketchikan.

Researchers think perhaps storms flushed the pup off the rookery and onto the island out of reach of her mother. Sea lion pups as young as Faith don't swim and normally don't leave the rookery until three weeks of age.

When the pup still remained on the beach June 4, ASLC staff working in cooperation with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the state Department of Fish and Game determined the sea lion was abandoned and started preparing to rescue her.

Noll said returning the pup to the rookery was not feasible.

"It's a very large rookery separated into three distinct groups," Noll said of the haul-out area. "Once we put her on there, we couldn't get her off."

The disturbance caused by placing the pup back on the rookery could act like a storm in itself and flush more pups into the sea, she said.

Storms also have caused havoc with the rookery at Chiswell Islands south of Seward, Noll said. Cameras placed on the island revealed between 10 and 12 pups being pulled into the sea recently from waves crashing onto the rocks.

However, more pups were spotted the following day hiding in the rocks high above the surf zone allowing researchers to estimate a loss of eight or nine pups out of 26 born so far this year.

The rehab staff was unable to retrieve the Chiswell Island pups washed into the sea, and instead are concentrating on Faith.

The opportunity to rehabilitate a Steller sea lion pup is a first in Alaska, Noll said. However, aquariums in California and Canada have had success with young sea lions.

The rehab staff hopes to release Faith back into the wild. But their biggest challenge will be socializing the animal with another sea lion because there are no captive pups in Alaska.

Soon, Faith will begin receiving nourishment from a remote feeding site with no human contact, Noll said. But for now, she seems to enjoy her bottle of formula every four hours and the human behind it.

Faith's rehab process could take up to a year.

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