Photo-Article: Dina N. Warren, Communications & Harbor Seal Crew volunteer.
Ready for release after lots of practice swimming, diving and retrieving fish in his deep water pool, Mike is sporting the latest in Harbor seal hat wear. In fact, Mike's temporary hat tag will help scientists track his travel and success in the wild, and will fall off once he experiences his first, yearly molt.
Mike practices floating and gliding along the water's surface.
Mike spots something interesting and assumes a vertical water position. Known as "bottling," this behavior is common to Harbor seals and other marine mammals.
Life is good! Mike enjoys a quiet doze while "bottling" just a few days before his release... shhh!
Mike was one of the very first pups of the 2011 Harbor season. He was rescued on March 22nd, at Bolinas' Brighton Beach, and safely admitted to the Center's special Harbor Seal Hospital facility. Mike was suffering from severe maternal separation -- severe, because Mike couldn't have been more than just a few days old. "At only 7.6 kilograms, Mike still had a three-inch umbilicus and was slightly jaundiced," described Deb Wickham, the Center's veterinary science operations manager. "Mike was a premature newborn, had no teeth, and was still covered in a long, whitish coat of hair, his lanugo coat, typical of premature pups. This is usually lost before birth and is less common in full-term pups," added Wickham.
After Mike received his "admit exam," vet staff started him on a newborn pup protocol. He was first stabilized with a tub-fed combination of electrolytes and fluids to rehydrate him. Mike also received a regime of vitamin B-complex called, pinnivite, to boost his immune system, along with a series of antibiotics to help guard against a potential fatal umbilicus infection. Then, Mike received frequent, small tube-feedings of Harbor seal baby formula - much like human formula. Since Mike did not experience the benefits of being raised by his mother, his weaning process was much longer, than he would have experienced in the wild. During the wild-weaning period of six to eight weeks, Mike would have also received valuable antibodies from his mother's milk, along with crucial learning experiences in swimming, diving, finding and catching food. At the Center, under artificial conditions, it took Mike about three months to reach independence, which is typical for other Harbor seal patients his age.
In the early stages of Mike's recovery and growth, he was extremely lethargic, and described by vet staff as, sweet and low. "He was a "slow developer" and almost died a couple of times, with periodic bouts of inactive breathing common to fragile newborns," explained Wickham. "It was a challenge for vet staff and Harbor Crew volunteers to assess and differentiate Mike's weak and irregular breathing, and his overall unresponsiveness," described Wickham. Since Mike also presented with a faint and irregular heartbeat, vet staff decided to include a bronchial respiratory stimulant, doxopram, in his tube feedings. This helped his small, under-developed lungs do a better job of keeping him alive! "Any time we see pups this tiny and compromised, we have to provide this kind of supportive care," added Wickham.
It was touch and go, that first month of Mike's life at the Center, but he grew and gained strength steadily. About a month after his rescue, Mike was finally ready to learn how to feed on whole fish, inside his small and shallow water enclosure, designed specifically for pups his age. Shortly thereafter, Mike graduated to one of the Center's larger, deeper pools, designed for longer, deeper swimming and diving opportunities. These pools encourage pinniped patients of all ages and types, to build stamina, strength and agility, while independently retrieving and eating fish. Often there will be as many as five or six seals in one of these larger pools, and just as in the wild, Mike learned to "compete" for food, while still under veterinary care.
Finally, on June 22nd, almost three months to the day of his rescue, Mike was ready to return to his ocean home! He was joined by three of his pen-mates; Dog Biscuit, Noyobabe and Serenity, also young pups treated for maternal separation. All were successfully released at Scotty Creek Beach, in Sonoma County. Mike's story of rescue, rehabilitation and release, is a celebration of the challenging work staff and volunteers perform each and every day at The Marine Mammal Center. We all wish the very best for Mike... Good luck, little guy!
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The Marine Mammal Center is a nonprofit veterinary hospital, research, and educational center dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of ill and injured marine mammals and the study of their health. Since 1975, the Center has rescued and treated more than 16,500 marine mammals and has accumulated a body of knowledge about marine mammal and ocean health. Through public education about marine mammals, the Center hopes to foster ocean stewardship and conservation. For more information, visit http://www.marinemammalcenter.org/