A rare Guadalupe fur seal found stranded near Tofino last week died at the Vancouver Aquarium on Wednesday.
The seal was brought into the aquarium on Jan. 21 after being discovered well out of its range on Long Beach.
“He was looking better on Saturday, but last night he had a very quick gastrointestinal bleed,” said the Vancouver Aquarium’s head veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena in a media release.
“Unfortunately, it’s a common complication for marine mammals that strand while experiencing near starvation.”
Guadalupe fur seals are usually found off the coast of Baja, California and are listed as threatened in the United States however the species is not listed on Canada’s Species At Risk Act because it’s not common to the country, according to the release.
Haulena said the rescue effort was valuable despite the outcome.
“Even if the odds of survival are slim, we’re always going to do our best to try and save an animal’s life,” he said. “We’re a rescue centre…that’s what we do.”
He added treating the rare creature brought a valuable learning experience and could lead to improved conservation efforts and future rescue efforts.
“This species is the subject of an ongoing Unusual Mortality Event in the U.S. and Mexico,” he said. “We’ve received sample requests and protocols from the United States and Mexico which will be invaluable in understanding the unexpectedly high numbers of this species that have recently died.”
The adult male seal was first spotted on Jan. 19 by Ucluelet local Doug Kimoto on a peninsula near Francis Island and he reported his sighting to local marine mammal expert Wendy Szaniszlo.
Szaniszlo told the Westerly News on Sunday that after receiving Kimoto’s call she headed to the site expecting to find a California sea lion and was “shocked and bewildered” to find a rare and endangered fur seal.
“I was fully expecting that it would just be a California sea lion because their numbers are really increasing and it’s quite common for us to see them here,” she said.
“I noticed right away that the colouration was a fair bit darker that I would have expected for a California sea lion…The first distinguishing feature that I noticed was that it had really big ears and that’s something that the sea lions we have here do not have; that’s definitely a fur seal feature.
“It turned its head and vocalized and it was a very different vocalization from the seals and sea lions here and also I noticed it had a very long pointy noise so I knew it was a fur seal.”
Szaniszlo had never seen an adult fur seal before and immediately sent photos of the animal to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and the Vancouver Aquarium to let them know what was going on.
She said the seal had no business being near the West Coast.
“It is very rare,” she said. “During El Nino years they are significantly affected by the water temperature change and how that affects their food so there have been a few unusual strandings along Washington and Oregon’s coast but in terms of range they should be down in Guadalupe Mexico and southern California.”
She added fur seals spend the vast majority of their lives far out at sea.
“They usually come ashore in the summertime during the breeding season to breed and have their pups and other than that they are way offshore,” she said.
Guadalupe fur seal are endangered but do not appear on Canada’s Species at Risk Act.
“Historically, they were hunted down to about 200 to 500 individuals and their numbers right now are up to about 20,000,” Szaniszlo said.
“They’re considered endangered in the [United] States and they’re also protected in Mexico but they are not listed in Canada because they should not be here.”
She said the animal was in rough shape.
“It did look quite emaciated, it was very lethargic so in addition to it being way out of its range, from an animal health perspective, the first thing that caught my attention was this did not look like a healthy animal,” she said.
“They should be quite plump and fat and this individual looked skinny and depending on his position you could see his ribs.”
She also noticed “brownish red ooze” coming from the seal’s mouth.
“I was able to get quite close and it really didn't react,” she said. “It lifted its head and that was about it, so I knew that it wasn't doing too well. It wasn't wanting to put up a fight or even flee.”
Vancouver Aquarium staff agreed to try rescuing and rehabilitating the animal and headed to Ucluelet the following morning but they arrived just minutes too late.
“By about 10 a.m. he [the seal] was already sitting upright on the log and by about 10:25 a.m. he decided to make his way into the water to my disappointment and frustration for sure,” Szaniszlo said.
“This was about 20 minutes out from the aquarium staff arriving.”
Rescue teams split up to find the animal, which was swimming slowly towards Ucluelet’s harbour, and crews were set up at Ucluelet’s Fuel Dock, the Whiskey Dock and the Pat Leslie Memorial Boat Launch.
Brian Congdon of Subtidal Adventures lent his vessel to the effort and Szaniszlo combed the waters but the search was suspended after about three hours of no sightings.
“We were hoping we would see him haul out again and then try to capture him from that spot already knowing what his condition was, which wasn’t very good,” Szaniszlo said.
Sure enough, the seal was spotted hauled out on Long Beach the following day and this time rescue efforts proved successful and the seal was transported to the Vancouver Aquarium arriving around 1:30 a.m. on Jan, 22, according to Szaniszlo.
A Jan. 22 update on the Vancouver Aquarium’s aquablog suggested the animal was alive but not doing well.
“He’s in poor condition, emaciated and dehydrated,” Haulena said. “Although he is very lethargic and has no interest in food at this time, he’s responsive and aware of his surroundings.”
The aquarium’s post added it had never responded to a Guadalupe fur seal before.
Szaniszlo hopes the finding motivates locals to report their sightings.
This whole incident really showed the importance of reporting stranded animals,” she said.
“In most cases, it’s going to be just a sick or old sea lion and we’ll let nature take its course but it’s only through reporting that we’re able to investigate and follow up and identify individuals and in this case it turned out to be a very, very, rare individual.”
She cautions locals to never approach a marine mammal in distress.
“Fur seals in particular have quite a reputation of being very, very, vicious,” she said.
The aquarium’s communications advisor Deana Lancaster told the Westerly News on Thursday that a hypothermic Green sea turtle that was discovered at Wickaninnish Beach last weekend is still alive and aquarium staff are “cautiously optimistic” about its chances.