Wayward harbor seal safely captured

FELTON — After several months the harbor seal that found its way up the Murderkill River and into Coursey Pond near Felton was successfully captured.

The decision was made to capture the seal, nicknamed “Phil” after a local fisherman who took to watching over it, early Tuesday morning when it was reported stuck in a muddy bog adjoining the Killens Pond spillway.

The Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation (MERR) Institute acted quickly to roll out a long-planned capture mission.

“The mud was around four feet deep, and we weren’t sure that he’d be able to get out on his own, but it provided the best chance we would ever have to catch him,” said MERR Institute executive director Suzanne Thurman.

“We had an emergency phone call with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who had to authorize our rescue plan and then we went for it.”

Phil, the wayward harbor seal that had been trapped in Coursey Pond, was safely captured on Tuesday and has been brought to the National Aquarium in Baltimore. (Submitted photo)

The MERR Institute is a non-profit “stranding” response and rehabilitation organization dedicated to the conservation of marine mammals and sea turtles.

The organization is authorized by National Marine Fisheries Service and the State of Delaware to be the official “stranding” respondents for the marine mammals and sea turtles of Delaware.

The National Aquarium Animal Rescue program sent over several specialists and 20 MERR institute volunteers showed up to help with the effort, said Ms. Thurman.

Specialists from the National Aquarium and 20 MERR Institute volunteers were on hand Tuesday to help execute the capture of the seal who’d found its way into a muddy bog adjoining the Killens Pond spillway. (Submitted photo)

“The state police helped to direct traffic, too. Ultimately, we had to bring the seal up to Killen Pond Road,” she said.

Ms. Thurman speculates the seal found its way into the Killens Pond spillway when the water level rose during rain storms last week. It may have been stranded in the mud for several days.

After examining the seal, seemingly trapped in the muddy bog, Ms. Thurman determined that it appeared to be suffering from injuries to its eyes as well.

“We’re not certain what the issue was, but it looked like there was eye irritation. He was scratching at them a lot,” she said. “It may have been the mud or possibly from living in the low salinity of the pond for several months.”

Making use of the National Aquarium’s team and equipment, the MERR Institute volunteers surrounded the seal to the best of their ability and sprung there trap.

There were a few hiccups, but the end result was the best they could hope for, said Ms. Thurman.

“It was, by far, the most challenging rescue we’ve ever done,” she said. “There was one escape route we couldn’t block because the mud was too deep there.

“Of course, when we got close, that route was the direction he went for. He actually ended up sinking himself in the mud. He seemed to be OK once we pulled him out, but he is being examined to see if he aspirated any of that mud.”

After successfully capturing the seal and carrying him to the road, the National Aquarium took custody of him and have since shipped him to their facility in Baltimore. There, the seal will be thoroughly examined and treated for any ailments it may have and, Ms. Thurman hopes, released in short order.

“As long as he gets a clean bill of health, he’ll be released,” she said. “We don’t know exactly when and where that will be just yet, but ultimately the seal will be heading north, so the National Aquarium will probably release him somewhere to make that easier.”

Long way from home

The seal, initially misidentified as a female, showed up last December initially in the Coursey Pond spillway adjoining the Murderkill River. Already about 12 to 14 miles inland at that point, the arrival of a harbor seal in this spot was considered “very unusual.”

“Normally, harbor seals should be in salt water, but this seal undoubtedly followed the fish that were heading up the Murderkill from Delaware Bay,” said Ms. Thurman.

At that point, MERR decided not to intervene in the hope that the seal would return to the bay on its own. However, during heavy snowfall in mid-January, he instead decided to climb out of the spillway, up and over Canterbury Road and down the Coursey Pond boat ramp into the pond proper — moving itself farther from an easy route back to the bay.

Once in the pond, tracking and potentially capturing the seal became harder. One attempt to catch him was quickly foiled.

“To capture it safely, you have to get between it and the water. Seals are cumbersome on land, but very agile in the water,” said Ms. Thurman. “We tried to catch him, but he was too close to the water’s edge and too quick.”

Up until recent weeks Ms. Thurman was still getting regular calls from residents spotting the seal. As it has been warming up outside, more residents have been flocking to Coursey Pond. This may have spooked the seal into the Killens Pond spillway when water levels rose, Ms. Thurman speculated.

Although that was yet another step farther from the bay, it turned out to be the one move that made capture possible. Because the seal was unable to quickly reach the water’s edge as it had in the past, the MERR Institute and National Aquarium teams made quick work of capturing it.

“We’re very pleased with the outcome. It went better than could have been expected considering all the challenges,” said Ms. Thurman.

“We’d been worried over the past few months. We’re so happy to get him out of the pond because he’s a beautiful animal and deserves to be returned to his natural habitat.”

Although early on there was fear that added attention to the seal might lead to undue stress on the animal, but Ms. Thurman lavished praise on local residents Wednesday for their “true sense of stewardship” for the seal and “diligent sighting calls.”

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