SEATTLE -- Sandy the harbor seal was found emaciated on a west Seattle beach, rehabilitated at a rescue center and released back into Puget Sound where she ranged widely for less than three months until she became entangled in old fishing line and drowned off a fishing pier at Edmonds.
Sandy's life story is unusual in that it was well documented, wildlife experts said Wednesday. Her travels were recorded by a transmitter that updated a website. And, her death was mourned by those who tried to save her life.
"It's tragic," said Mark Coleman, spokesman for the Progressive Animal Welfare Society. "It was such a wonderful success story. We were able to bring her back to life and put her out in the wild and then we lose her."
Sandy was a very thin pup about three weeks old when she was found in August by Seal Sitters, said Susan Morrow, head of Edmonds branch of the organization.
Sandy spent five months at the PAWS wildlife center at Lynnwood. About 10 harbor seal pups a year end up in pools where they are kept away from people as much as possible to improve their chances when they are returned to the wild, Coleman said.
Sandy was released in January in south Puget Sound near Olympia, and she really took off, according to information transmitted through a tracking system set up by PAWS, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department and the SeaDoc Society, which mapped her travels on its website. It showed Sandy swam all around Puget Sound as far north as the San Juan Islands.
The last transmission was near the end of March at Edmonds where volunteer divers found her carcass as they were clearing broken fishing lines near a fishing pier.
Sandy's story was first reported Wednesday in The Daily Herald of Everett.
The Seal Sitters organization watches seal pups that are left alone on beaches. The sitters prevent them from being harmed, harassed or picked up by well-meaning people. Most seal pups are OK and should be left alone so they can reunite with their mother, wildlife experts say.
Their life is tough enough. About half of all harbor seal pups die naturally in their first year, Morrow said. Puget Sound has a stable population of about 15,000, she said.
That's why Sandy stands out.
"It's unusual in that Sandy was so well documented and there was so much information about her travels and that she was actually found," Morrow said. "When they're released quite often you don't get that follow up."
"This one we could track directly back to us," Coleman said.
It was one of the first times wildlife officials retrieved a tag from a harbor seal, said Kristin Wilkinson, stranding network coordinator for NOAA Fisheries.
"What's unique about this case is we were able to go full circle and get the transmitter back and her carcass," Wilkinson said.
The necropsy showed Sandy drowned.
The distance over the Salish Sea that Sandy traveled indicated a possible difference between rescued seals and those that are weaned in the wild, Wilkinson said.
A wild animal typically will travel no farther than it must to find food. Pups that are raised in the wild are apparently better at finding food than rescued pups that have to range farther, she said.
"You're picking up all the tips and tricks from mom," Wilkinson said. "If you can conserve energy and find food in a smaller area that's better for the animal in the long term."
One study that compared 10 released harbor seals and 10 wild weaned pups found that the rehabilitated pups swam twice as far as wild pups.
Sandy's death also illustrates the problem of old or abandoned fishing lines and gear that keep on killing fish and wildlife. Divers with the Northwest Straits program regularly remove derelict nets and gear from Puget Sound.