BERLIN — On a slightly overcast morning, surrounded by a crowd of cheering fans, rescued harbor seal “Sodapop” was released into the ocean at Assateague Island Thursday.
National Aquarium Animal Rescue Team leader Jennifer Dittmar was at hand for the release. It was a proud moment for her team, she said, because the rescues don’t always have a happy ending.
“It’s always a great experience to be able to rehab them because a lot of times they come in in really bad condition. We don’t intervene unless they’re in really bad condition,” said Dittmar.
Sodapop was in just such a condition back in February when he showed up at the National Aquarium rehabilitation facilities “emaciated, with a severe respiratory infection, and cuts and scrapes on his face and hips,” according to Dittmar.
During his three months under the care of the aquarium, Sodapop recovered nicely, putting away an average of eight pounds of fish per day as well as twice daily oral antibiotics for his infection. Upon his release, Sodapop was up to a respectable 53 pounds.
While Sodapop was a resounding success, Dittmar warned that people need to be careful and conscious with the planet’s fragile wildlife.
“A lot of times we put these animals in this position in one way or another just putting pressure on their ecosystems, so it’s great to be able to give back and get them back out there,” she said.
While the weather at Sodapop’s farewell was a little dreary, it couldn’t suppress the enthusiasm of the large crowd that had walked out on the beach to see him off, including many students who were on Assateague for field trips. According to Dittmar, it was the perfect time to let the harbor seal back into the water.
“It’s a lot of work and by the time we release them they’re really ready to go,” she said. “The last few days he’s had a lot of energy and that’s when you really know that they’re ready to get back out there. It’s a great feeling.”
The National Aquarium’s Animal Rescue program has been active since 1991 and has cared for and released nearly 100 animals in that time. The team responds to “stranded marine mammals and sea turtles” all around Delmarva.
The rescue program is part of the Northeast Stranding Network (NERS) through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The National Aquarium is one of several cooperative linked facilities across the nation that performs marine mammal and sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation.