BIDDEFORD, Maine — Bitterly-cold whipping winds and near-freezing water temperatures didn't slow this juvenile harp seal named "Snow" down as he chugged along the beach and back into the Gulf of Maine Wednesday (Feb. 26) after a month-long stay at nearby rehabilitation facilities.
Members of the local nonprofit group Marine Mammals of Maine found the critically dehydrated young seal lying on a frozen marsh, and notified staff at the Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center (MARC) at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine who took him in to be treated on Jan. 28.
Snow, who is estimated to be about 1 year old, is the third of seven stranded seals that have been brought to MARC so far this year. The animals stay at the center until they regain their strength, which can take anywhere from several weeks to several months depending on their health conditions, Shannon Prendiville, senior animal care technician at MARC, told Live Science. [ Images: Rehabilitated Harp Seal Returns to Wild ]
Before releasing their patients back into the wild, center staff attach a tag to each seal's fin with an ID code and the center's phone number so that they can be reached if the same animals wash ashore again.
Snow will soon migrate back up into Arctic waters where he was born. Harp seals begin their lives in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, from Newfoundland to northern Russia, and migrate to southerly waters during the winter. They have been found as far south as coastal Virginia, but generally do not venture much farther south than New Jersey.
Harp seals are classified as species of "least concern" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List, because their populations are large, estimated to be at least 5.9 million in the western North Atlantic in 2004, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Humans are the main threat to the animals, particularly hunters interested in the snow-white coats the pups sport during the first two weeks of their lives.