A young male harbor seal stranded this week on a Virginia beach was fighting for his life today at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
The 45-pound animal was reported to be in guarded condition, suffering from pneumonia, malnutrition and worms.
"He really is having a lot of difficulty and we're really being guarded against being too optimistic at this point," said Cheryl Messinger, one of three animal care specialists who brought the seal back from Virginia Beach early today.
"He's stable, but they don't have a very good survival rate," shsaid. "By the time they come to the beach, they're normally far along in whatever disease they're fighting."
The animal was being closely watched in an isolation pool inside the aquarium's Pier 3 facility. He was refusing food, but receiving treatment with fluids and antibiotics, Messinger said.
"Mostly what we see is some labored breathing," she said. "He is taking fluids, and he drinks fresh water on his own . . . He's very calm and resting right now. He spends some time in the water, and some out on deck. That's very important; we like to see him resting."
Aquarium experts have been consulting with seal specialists at the New England Aquarium in Boston and the California Marine Mammal Center, which have had good success caring for stranded seals.
Harbor seals already in the Baltimore aquarium's collection were acquired after they were stranded on a California beach and nursed back to health.
But there are no plans to keep this animal, if he survives, Messinger said. "Our role is to care for him, rehabilitate and re-release him."
The seal was first spotted on the shore at Virginia Beach Wednesday morning, and recovered by the Virginia Marine Science Institute, which administered some early care.
At 45 pounds, the 3 1/2 -foot yearling is about half the weight he should be at his age, Messinger said. "Whatever illness he has, he's been harboring it for quite some time now."
The National Aquarium was called in yesterday morning and agreed to take the animal for long-term care and rehabilitation.
Messinger, joined by specialists Julie Jackson and Sandy Barnett, drove to Virginia Beach in an aquarium van last night, packed the seal in special transport crate, and trucked him back to Baltimore. They arrived at the aquarium at 5 a.m.
"He survived the trip very well," Messinger said.
The seal was moved to the indoor isolation tank near the outdoor seal pool, and placed in a plastic wading pool used last summer for the birth of three seal pups.
Aquarium scientists have responded to numerous East Coast strandings in recent years, and officials hope to do more. The new Marine Mammal Pavilion was designed with a special elevator and isolation tank to accommodate the recovery and treatment of dolphins and small whales.
While some efforts fail, "it all helps us to collect data on stranded animals, and to learn some of the whys," Messinger said. "With each animal we learn a little bit more, and that helps to ensure success for future animals."