July 01, 2017

Seal Healers

Each spring, new lodgers appear at the rehabilitation center known as “Seal.”
Caring residents from across Primorye deliver sick animals to the small village of Tavrichanka: cubs who have been separated from their mothers, been wounded, or been covered with oil.

At the center, the animals are fed and restored to health, so that in July they can be returned to the sea.

Ten years ago, writer and artist Lora Beloivan was living in Vladivostok and planning to move to Moscow. Instead she ended up moving to the small village of Tavrichanka, just 49 kilometers northwest of Vladivostok.

It happened like this.

Lora and her husband were walking on the shore one day when they found a small, sick seal beneath a circling unkindness of ravens. They rescued it, named it Chuvyrla (a colloquialism for an unattractive girl), and took it home, to their bathtub.

How does one nurse such an animal back to health? No one in Vladivostok had any idea, and there was no information to be found on the internet. So the couple got in touch with an Irish rehabilitation center, which gave them the information they needed, and Chuvyrla was put on the mend.

But then, two weeks later, the pup died from an unexpected allergy to an antihistamine drug.

The couple took it hard. Yet the experience showed them that they wanted to learn how to care for sick seal pups and prepare them to return to the wild. They bought a house in Tavrichanka, then went off for training at rehab centers in Ireland, the Netherlands, and the US. They gained invaluable and unique experience, returning to Tavrichanka to found Seal, Russia’s first rehabilitation center for sea mammals. Over the past decade the couple has returned some 40 seals to the wild. They now work to pass on their expertise to other seal savers in St. Petersburg and Sakhalin.

The western edge of Tavrichanka borders the Tikhaya (“Quiet”) lagoon, near where the Razdolnaya River flows into the Amur Gulf.

This year two volunteers arrived at the Seal center in Tavrichanka – Yulia from Irkutsk and Maxim from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. They are spending their vacations here, rising at six and collapsing at midnight, working all day to improve the center’s infrastructure and feed the seals.

It would be easy to mistake the hospital for a typical home, were it not for the pools where the garden plot should be. There are also outdoor cages and a kitchen, where the animals’ feed is prepared and where bags of linen are kept. Next to the house is a small structure, the “infirmary.” This is an incoming seal’s first stop. Pups lie on cloth pads and are tube fed a mixture of herring and water enriched with vitamins and minerals.

“Seals become easily accustomed to being around people,” says Lora. “So we try to only have contact with the animals when absolutely necessary. During feeding, for example, there needs to be some kind of physical contact, but we limit ourselves to that. Our goal is to release them back into the wild not seeing humans as their friends. We try to avoid any superfluous contact with them, we don’t fuss over them or talk to them. We even minimize eye contact. That way the animals will remain wild.”

As Lora is talking, Yulia swaddles each pup, securing its head and flippers, avoiding the seals’ piercing gazes like a pro, and dripping the green soup into their mouths through a tube. The sated seals stop crying and are transformed, as they say here, into “seal larvae.” They wallow in the sheets.

The Seal rehabilitation center is financed largely by Lora and her husband, but also via donations from individuals, which is true of the majority of such rehab centers the world over. For Lora it is important that it be that way.

“There is this thing called civil society,” she says. “We can’t hang everything on the state – it is massive and hulking. Some things must simply be done by citizens. State interference in the development of civil society is a separate matter. Because it [the state] is clueless and afraid of everything; because it cannot understand that someone would do something voluntarily and not for money (after all, it does everything for the money). But they don’t bother us in our work, and that is a good thing. We are completely unconcerned about money. There isn’t even anyone for us to bribe, except perhaps the seals.” Lora smiles with her bright blue eyes, and then talks about what happens when local bureaucrats stop by.

They call the hospital “the pearl of Nadezhdinsky District,” she says. They promise something, then... disappear. No one here is surprised by this.

Lora’s typical patient is an emaciated seal. The animals must attain a certain weight in order to become independent. Their fat is their protection from the cold, their source of energy and bodily fluids (seals do not drink). If a seal pup is torn from its mother early, it suffers from depletion. At the same time, its ability to thermoregulate is destroyed, and a series of associated problems arise: pneumonia, parasites, eye diseases.

There are various reasons why a family unit may be broken up: there can be panic in a breeding ground when a boat comes by; animals can get snared in a net, struck by an outboard motor, or be covered by an oil spill (coated in fuel oil, they suffer from severe intoxication); adult seals may also be killed by hunters.

“The year before last, a stressed seal showed up at the center,” Lora says. “People tried throwing him back into the sea several times, but he kept crawling back out. The poor seal arrived here with such a high level of cortisol, that he died. We tried treating him for shock, but he crashed like a dive-bomber... just 23 hours and he was gone.”

“Is it hard every time?”

“It doesn’t make us cry, or drink, anymore. It’s just very difficult, very difficult.”

When the seals are returned to health and their continued presence in the center could impact their ability to readjust to the wild, it is time to release them. This is typically done on islands in the Primorsky Krai chosen based on the size of the adult population, the distance from populated areas, and the density of nearby human populations.

On a warm spring day, three seals are graduating from the rehab center, transported by ship in wooden boxes on their way to a ceremony overseen by the center’s staff. They are helped by volunteers, divers, and journalists.

“Flint was found in early March, beneath the pier on the campus of the Far Eastern Federal University, and the students protected him in turns until divers from the Seafrogs could arrive and bring him to the center,” says Beloivan. “Freya arrived here from Nakhodka with a fever and pneumonia. Barrabas was brought at the end of March from Tikhaya Bay, suffering from a seal version of chicken pox. Right now the only two remaining in the center are Lillireven and Livyegeren.”

At first, the young pups were to be released on Verkhovsky Island, but, due to heavy seas, the ship could not get close enough to shore, so a different release point had to be found. A decision was made to head for the island of Zheltukhin, which has one of the krai’s largest populations of adult seals.

Zheltukhin is not close: about three hours from Vladivostok by boat. Flint and Freya sleep en route, but Barrabas is unnerved the entire trip, clawing at the door of her cage and indignantly protesting her unjust imprisonment.

Passing the islands of Russky, Popov and Rikord, our ship, Okhotnik (“Hunter”), finally arrives at Zheltukhin, whose topography gives it the shape of a giant saddle.

The island is famous for its surrealistic landscape, where rusty tanks rest amid lush vegetation. In the Soviet era, the island was a firing range for naval ships, and nearly a dozen T34/85 tanks, along with a few planes, were brought here as targets.

The ship cannot get very close to shore, so the seals make the final leg of their journey by motor boat.

After the boxes are placed on the shore, Beloivan gives the command to set the pups free. Their cage doors are opened simultaneously just a few meters from the shoreline. The seals cover the ground separating them from their watery home in a matter of seconds, then stop suddenly at the water’s edge, as if they cannot believe their luck. Opening their nostrils wide, they noisily breath in the sea air, reveling in the salty spray.

A few moments later they are in the surf, yet they are in no hurry to swim off. To the delight of their audience, they linger nearby, playing in the waves.

The curious pups repeatedly pop their heads above the surface to gaze at their saviors with interest, before once again submerging. Each time they swim further and further away, until they disappear completely. RL

Want to help? Visit bit.ly/seels-in-need

The largha, or spotted seal (phoca largha) is a sea mammal that lives in the northern reaches of the Pacific Ocean, from Alaska to Japan. It is closely related to the common seal and has a similar appearance. Largha is the name that the Tungus people gave the seal, and it is distinguished by its elongated muzzle – not unlike that of a dog – and by the small irregular spots spread across its skin. The spotted seals’ coloring is rather diverse and ranges from light silver to dark gray. A fully-grown adult ranges from 1.7 to 2 meters long and can weigh 130-150 kilograms.

In Russia, this denizen of the sea lives all along the shores of the Sea of Japan. It does not congregate in huge clusters; its rookeries range in size from 10-200. The spotted seals prefer small, rocky islands, shallow bays, and disconnected rock formations along the shore.

In the Primorsky Krai their largest rookeries are within the bounds of the Oceanic Nature Preserve: on the islands of the Rimsky-Korsakov archipelago, on Butakova and Baklany. The seals can also be seen in Peter the Great Gulf, and on the outskirts of Vladivostok, where they swim to raise their offspring.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, spotted seals were hunted near Vladivostok for their skins, fat and meat. Today, there are an estimated 290,000 spotted seals throughout their habitation zone.

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