A round-eyed whiskered pinniped landed at the Prince Rupert airport Wednesday morning, Jan. 27 and after a few photo opportunities she was whisked away to return to her natural habitat.
Nadia Comaneci — not to be confused with the 1980s Russian gymnast — is a young seal pup who had been separated from her mother. She was rescued last spring in Rupert waters and was flown down to the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre.
Every year the rescue centre has a naming theme, and Nadia’s name was chosen in the year of athletes. The manager of the rescue centre, Lindsaye Akhurst, said Nadia was a special case.
“Usually the animals are in care for an average of two to three months, but in her case she was just over 5kg, half the birth weight we see in a lot of our seals,” Akhurst said. Nadia spent seven months at the rescue centre to bring her up to a healthy 25kg.
She was tube-fed a high fat, high protein formula five times a day and given fluids for hydration. Once she was old enough, the centre slowly introduced fish into her diet to get her strong for her release back into the wild. Part of the rehabilitation process is putting the pups in pools with other seals so they learn to compete for fish.
The Marine Mammal Rescue Centre rehabilitates 100 to 150 seal pups a year, among other marine mammals including sea lions, sea otters and harbour porpoises. The centre tracks some of the seals and their research has demonstrated a 60 per cent post-release success rate, which is equivalent to what it is in the wild, according to Akhurst.
Nadia has an orange tag on her flipper with a number on it that people can call, although Akhurst doesn’t recommend getting to close to read the number.
Akhurst said it’s not common to have seals from Prince Rupert. “It’s obviously quite north for us to be able to get these guys,” she said. But it’s important to release the seals from this region back in North Coast waters where there is a different population of seals compared to the more southern, Vancouver area.
“They have an earlier breeding and pupping season than Vancouver and it’s important to take her back in her natural waters,” Akhurst said.
In order to accommodate Nadia’s rescue and release there were a few players involved. Hawk Air transported her in the spring and Air Canada brought her back on Jan. 27 in cargo for a minimal charge.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans took over the release once Nadia arrived at the airport. Patricia Demille, the detachment supervisor for conservation and protection was in charge of picking the seal up from the airport and finding an appropriate habitat for her release.
“We took her just on the other side of Digby Island. The weather was terrible that day and we didn’t want to bash her around on a big boat. We just need an area where she could pull herself out of the water and a place that was away from vessel traffic,” Demille said.
Nadia was annoyed when she first got off the plane but Demille said she settled right down and seemed curious. The officers who took her back into the wild filmed the release via GoPro.
They opened the crate on the side of the boat and tilted it over slightly and she jumped right into the water. About 10 feet from where she dipped in she popped up, looked at them, and then took off for the island, pulling herself up on top of the rocks. “It was neat to see,” Demille said.
This was the first marine mammal release of the year. There was another seal released last November, but prior to that Demille said she had never heard of seals being flown up to Prince Rupert.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans released Nadia back into her natural habitat after seven months of rehabilitation.