As a smiling woman opened a crate Tuesday, a harbor seal inside could see the ocean for the first time in months.
The seal slowly approached the water at Gateway National Recreation Area in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. He paused for a few moments to let waves break closer to his body. Then with a start, he bounded toward the surf and began to float seaward, toward freedom, as a crowd of onlookers cheered.
Later, he could be seen looking back toward the people who had gathered to watch him return to his habitat.
The seal, nicknamed Phil, is the 200th animal released by the National Aquarium’s animal rescue program, which was founded in 1991. Half of those rescues came in the past four years, thanks to the program’s expansion, said Jennifer Dittmar, the aquarium’s curator of animal rescue, in a statement announcing the seal’s release.
“Returning a healthy animal to its natural habitat is always a joyful occasion for our team,” Dittmar said. “Stories like Phil’s bring the issues to life and create meaningful links between our actions and the differences we can make.”
The aquarium’s animal care center took in the seal on April 11 after he became stranded 12 miles inland in Delaware. He had been monitored as an out-of-habitat animal since late December, when he began traveling up a river there.
After moving into a muddy area with little water, he began to show signs of declining health and appeared to have problems moving about and finding food, according to the aquarium.
Rescuers treated the seal for dehydration, an eye infection and a neurological condition. Aquarium staff took 12 weeks to determine him stable enough to be released.
Since its founding, the aquarium’s animal rescue program has responded to stranded marine mammals and sea turtles along the nearly 4,360 miles of Maryland coast. It has admitted, treated and released to their natural habitats harbor, grey, harp and hooded seals; Kemp’s ridley, green and loggerhead sea turtles; rough-toothed dolphins; a harbor porpoise; a pygmy sperm whale and a manatee.