Homes for stranded prove hard to find BALTIMORE CITY


January 13, 1993|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Staff Writer

A blind harbor seal rescued a decade ago from a beach stranding has taken up residence at the National Aquarium's outdoor pool in Baltimore, accompanied by the pup she gave birth to in June.

The story of the blind seal, named Clarisse, illustrates a problem facing aquariums across the country -- finding homes for the large number of seals that are found stranded and injured or ailing.

Although only seven stranded seals have been tended so far in the National Aquarium's marine mammal hospital, the New England Aquarium has been helping out with hundreds of seals found stranded each year and providing medical care for many of them.

"Those that cannot be released to the wild are given out to other zoos or aquariums," said John M. Jarkowiec, curator of marine mammals at the National Aquarium, adding that many of them eventually bear young in captivity.

There are so many seals being rescued that finding good homes for them can prove difficult. As a result there is no need to capture healthy wild animals for zoological programs anywhere in the country, the curator noted.

Clarisse was a young seal when she was found stranded and sightless, and was rehabilitated by the staff of the small Sea Land of Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

The seal likely would have died in the wild but thrived in captivity. She responds to touch and to verbal commands, and can find her way in darkness through a keen sense of hearing or sensing movement through sensitive hollow whiskers.

Clarisse gave birth in June to Buoy, a female, shortly before the Cape Cod aquarium went out of business.

Clarisse and Buoy were taken in temporarily by the New England Aquarium in Boston, until the National Marine Fisheries Service found a permanent home for them in Baltimore.

Mother and daughter arrived at the National Aquarium late Sunday afternoon, in what Mr. Jarkowiec described as "the kind of weather seals like" -- icy.

Clarisse weighed in at a "plump" 178 pounds, and Buoy, at 104. Seal pups nurse for only about a month and grow rapidly.

The maximum weight for adult females is about 200 pounds, and for males about 250, according to Mr. Jarkowiec, who said seals have a life span in captivity of about 25 years.

All nine of the seals currently on exhibit in the National Aquarium's outdoor pool are once-stranded animals or the progeny of stranded animals, according to Mr. Jarkowiec. Offspring from seals in Baltimore have been sent to aquariums in Chicago and Camden, N.J., he said.

Of seven stranded seals treated in Baltimore, four died, one was rehabilitated and sent to another institution, and one was returned to the wild last spring at Plymouth, Mass. -- a release that was recorded on tape and incorporated into the video portion of the aquarium's dolphin shows as an idyllic example of humans helping their fellow animals.

The last seal -- found riddled with buckshot Dec. 28 on the southern Virginia coast, is still in the hospital unit, critically ill.

The exhibition pool population now includes a breeding pair of adult gray seals and, with Clarisse and Buoy, five female and two male harbor seals.

Grays prefer colder, deeper waters of the North Atlantic, and have major populations in the British Isles, the Baltic Sea and off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. But grays have been seen as far south as Ocean City and Chincoteague, where observers were able to spot tags that had been put on the animals as pups on Nova Scotia's Sable Island, Mr. Jarkowiec said.

Harbor seals -- also known as common seals -- are coastal in nature, and found in more shallow waters.

They are more widely distributed than grays, found on both sides of the Pacific and Atlantic and along the East Coast from New England to occasionally the Carolinas.

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