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'Phil the Seal' returns to the wild

After spending more than two months in rehabilitation, Phil the harbor seal was released at Gateway National Recreation Area in New Jersey where he made his way back into the Atlantic Ocean.




More than 60 people watched as staff from the National Aquarium set down a crate containing Phil on the sand. Several minutes after they opened the crate, Phil wiggled his way towards the water, making his way back to his natural habitat.


Kimberly Fallon and her family are from Hazlet, New Jersey. They came to Gateway National Recreation Area to see the lighthouse and heard word of the release happening on the beach.


“It’s special to see it happen in real life. I feel connected to him and I really hope he does well out here,” Fallon said.


That connection is the same feeling many Kent County residents felt since late December after they noticed Phil residing in the spillway at Coursey Pond. One day in January, Felton resident Chris Lambert was driving towards Milford when he noticed Phil wiggling across the road, through snow and into the pond. 


He filmed the scene and his video went viral — receiving more than 24,000 views on Facebook. 


“It was just odd to see a seal that far inland crossing the road,” Lambert told Delaware Public Media in January.


Marine Education Research and Rehabilitation Institute executive director Suzanne Thurman said Phil likely swam 12-14 miles up the Murderkill River to the spillway. He was likely following food, she said.


“There were ample fish in the pond. He was often sighted just gorging himself on the fish that were available. Because there was no shortage, there was no real reason for him to leave,” Thurman said.


In April, Phil got stuck in mud near Killens Pond and MERR Institute volunteers rescued him. They brought him to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where he stayed until the end of June.


The National Aquarium’s rehabilitation manager Kate Shaffer said when Phil was brought in, his body condition was fine, though he did have ticks. He was suffering from eye irritation and dehydration. A little larger than most of their seal patients, Phil was an “interesting challenge,” she said.


Delaware Public Media science reporter Katie Peikes interviews Kate Shaffer, rehabilitation manager at the National Aquarium, about Phil the Seal.

“A few of the times, because of his size and because of the procedures that we needed to do, we actually had to sedate him, put him under anesthesia, which can be a little risky with these guys — so we’re very happy that he responded well to those treatments,” Shaffer said.


Shaffer said Phil ate well. He came in at about 120 pounds and left at almost 170 pounds.


After seeing improvement in his blood results and physical condition, the National Aquarium applied for his release with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 


Since Phil was an “out-of-habitat” animal and lived in freshwater for months, whereas seals typically live in saltwater habitats, the aquarium had to find a place where he likely wouldn’t be stranded again or try to go back to freshwater.


“We brought him here to New Jersey to give him access to the open ocean, where he hopefully won’t return to the Delaware Bay,” Shaffer said.


The National Aquarium put a tracker on Phil so they can see where he travels. Once he molts, it will come off. They'll no longer be able to track him and Phil will truly be on his own.


Thurman said she is thrilled to see Phil back where he belongs.


“It’s what we hope for, and it doesn’t always happen,” Thurman said. “When it does, we just really savor that moment because we want these animals to be able to have fewer obstacles to their well-being.”


Phil is the National Aquarium's 200th animal rescue to be released since their Animal Rescue program was founded in 1991.


Originally published Tuesday, June 27, 2017.

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