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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

June 29, 2011 at 8:15 AM

Weird creatures: an Alaskan fur seal found in a cow pasture

It was inauguration day 1993. On the East Coast, Bill Clinton and Al Gore were swearing an oath. On the West Coast a lost marine mammal was barking up a storm.

The 8-month-old northern fur seal was supposed to be out at sea. But it got disoriented in a storm during its journey south from the Pribilof Islands in Alaska. Instead of staying on course 20 miles off Washington’s coast, this tiny pup turned left and washed up in Hoquiam, Grays Harbor.

fur seal Mark Harrison.JPG

Al the fur seal at the Seattle Aquarium. Mark Harrison, photo

It “came ashore and just kept moving until it ended up in this cow field,” said C.J. Casson, life sciences curator at the Seattle Aquarium, which adopted the creature and named it “Little Al.”

I wrote a story this week about bizarre creatures that have shown up unexpectedly in Northwest waters. Check out the story here. But I didn’t have enough space to talk about Al.

While the range of northern fur seals extends from Alaska to Russia and Japan and south to the Channel Islands, they almost never make it to the mainland. Their lives are spent almost entirely at sea, and they come ashore on a few select ocean islands to breed. They aren’t supposed to show up in Puget Sound or the Washington coast.

But, sometimes, they do.

“I’ve been working here for over 30 years, and I’ve seen some interesting things, and some strange things,” Casson said.

He’s seen a northern fur seal near a fish ladder just outside the aquarium downtown. One fur seal somehow found its way to Lake Union. But none of those visitors impressed Casson quite as much as Al did.

Al was tenacious. He was found that wintery day in `93 by a farmer who heard him making a ruckus near his livestock. The seal had traveled inland through a half-mile of forest and wound up hanging out in a pasture next to a bunch of lowing cattle. It only weighed about a dozen pounds. But it was making a tremendous racket.

Casson jokes that Little Al was probably attracted to the mooing of the cows.

The Seattle Aquarium took Al in. They hoped initially to release him, but the seal was too friendly with humans. Wild male fur seals need to be aggressive to survive. So, instead, the Aquarium gave Al a home.

Today Al is still around. While most male fur seals die around age 13, Al has lived almost two decades. He’s slower now, but he’s no longer little.

“He’s Big Al and he’s large and in charge,” Casson said.

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