VANCOUVER - The Vancouver Aquarium has released seven rescued harbour seal pups back into the wild, with plans to track them as they return to the ocean.
Five of the pups were equipped with satellite-linked transmitters that will provide the marine mammal rescue centre with information about where the seals go and how they do after returning to the wild.
Martin Haulena, the aquarium's staff veterinarian, said Wednesday that the information will help the team determine the ideal conditions for release and whether they need to make any changes to their rehabilitation program.
"I want to see how these animals do, and how they do kind of dictates what we do next year. Are there differences or changes that I want to do in their release criteria — release them at different weights? Release them in different areas?" Haulena said just before the animals were released.
They were transported in dog kennels to the ocean front in Porteau Cove, on the Sea to Sky Highway north of Vancouver. After staff opened the kennel doors, the wide-eyed, speckled pups looked around at their entourage for a few minutes before they bounced and squirmed their way into the water.
The satellite-linked tags, glued to the hair coat on their heads like high-tech Mohawk haircuts, cost about $1,500 each and about $200 a month to monitor. They have a battery life of about a year, but may fall off well before then.
"They might only last a few weeks but we have had them last about 280 days before," Haulena said.
The tags will transmit location data to researchers, allowing them to track the distribution, longevity and distance travelled by the pups.
Last year, the aquarium tracked five rehabilitated seal pups the same way, but that group was released in a more remote, sparsely populated area. One of the questions the team has is whether rehabilitated seals are more prone to hang around populated areas.
"(Do) these animals that stick around become nuisance animals, go places they shouldn't be? Or do they go along and do a relatively normal thing?" Haulena said.
Earlier this year, the aquarium successfully released a rehabilitated adult porpoise. The animal, named Levi, had a satellite transmitter attached to its dorsal fin that provided unprecedented information to the marine mammal rescue team for 70 days.
The pups had been at the aquarium for about three months.
Lindsaye Akhurst, manager of the aquarium's Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, said most seals come in during pupping season in July. The main goal of the team is to ensure they can forage for food and survive in the wild.
"It definitely can be quite tricky," she said. " A lot of these seals that come in have different personalities, and just like children they learn at different paces as well. Sometimes they get the foraging right way. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer."
After 20 years of working on rehabilitation, Haulena said it's still "awesome" every time.
"So much work goes into these guys and they look so terrible when they come in."