More than 60 people gathered on the beach at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, Tuesday to watch the folks from Baltimore’s National Aquarium release a harbor seal they had been treating for more than two months back into the Atlantic Ocean.
Phil—he was named for a fisherman who helped monitor him—had been in a pond in Kent County, Delaware, all winter and came to the aquarium in mid-April with an eye irritation — likely from being in freshwater too long.
Suzanne Thurman, the director of the Marine Education Research and Rehabilitation Institute in Delaware, said Phil likely stayed in the pond because he had no competition for food.
"He was often sighted just gorging himself on the fish that were available," she said. "Because there was no shortage, there was no real reason for him to leave."
In April, Phil worked his way into mud and got stuck. Volunteers came to his rescue and transported him to Baltimore where he stayed until Tuesday.
The aquarium’s Kate Shaffer said he was dehydrated when he arrived, but his overall body condition was okay and he started gaining weight during treatment. He came in at 120 pounds and left at about 170.
"A few of the times because of his size and because of the procedures that we needed to do - we actually had to sedate him, put him under anesthesia," she said. And that "can be a little risky with these guys - so we’re very happy that he responded well to those treatments."
Phil is the National Aquarium’s 200th animal rescue release.
Kimberly Fallon and her family from Hazlet, New Jersey, were heading to the Sandy Hook Lighthouse nearby when they heard about the seal release and went to watch Phil wiggle out of his crate and head for the sea.
"It was amazing," she said. "It’s special to see it happen in real life. I feel connected to him and I really hope he does well out there."
Aquarium workers opened the cage and Phil slowly crawled out. He squirmed his way across the sand then paused at the water’s edge as small waves lapped at the shore. Finally, he pushed through the first breaker, floated free for an instant, then disappeared in the surf.
Shaffer says they have "no way to know" where he’ll go. He could hang around the Jersey shore because "there’s some suitable habitat here," she said. "Or maybe he’ll head north to cooler waters."
But this may not be the last we hear of Phil. The aquarium placed a tag on him to track where he goes. He’ll have that tag until his next molt.