It took over 20 volunteers and officials to rescue Phil, the popular wayward harbor seal, near Killen's Pond in Felton on Tuesday to transport him to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, authorities said.
Phil has been in the public eye for several months, after the migrating harbor seal left the ocean and moved inland. An unusual occurrence, the creature traveled over 12 miles up the Murderkill River, probably following fish, his main food source, said Suzanne Thurman, executive director of the MERR Institute in Lewes.
Phil, who was previously thought to be female, is actually male, Thurman said.
"She is a he," Thurman said. "We thought it was a he, then we saw a marking that made us think it was a she. However, that turned out to be an injury, not an anatomical feature. It's a he, that was confirmed yesterday."
The seal was named after a fisherman who volunteered to monitor the seal's welfare, according to MERR.
Phil settled near the Coursey Pond spillway west of Frederica for "a couple weeks or so," Thurman said. A lot of human hours were required by MERR volunteers to instruct civilian onlookers at the site about the necessity to keep away from seals, who do not respond well to human presence.
"The public was very cooperative for the most part," Thurman said.
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When the first snowstorm of the season came, it was expected that a seal's tendency to move to deeper water might force Phil to return to the bay. That didn't happen. Instead, Phil crossed the busy Canterbury Road – Delaware Route 15 – which under normal circumstances might have been the tragic end to the story. However, traffic was moving slowly due to the snow and Phil made it to the other side, Thurman said.
Relying on the public to help track the animal and keep it safe, MERR worked with NOAA and a specialist animal rescue team to plan ways to capture the out-of-habitat creature and take him to safety. But no opportunity presented itself.
"An in-water rescue can be extremely risky," Thurman said.
After a second snowstorm, Phil moved further up the Murderkill to Killens Pond in mid-January.
Thurman said they tried to keep the animal's location secret, fearing for his safety, but the public remained aware due to numerous sightings. MERR monitored the situation several days a week, Thurman said.
Sightings of Phil became less frequent over the past two weeks, Thurman said. Volunteers conducted several kayak excursions to try to find Phil without success.
Then, a fisherman sighted Phil in a muddy offshoot Monday.
Rescuers found Phil in a bog-like area with mud 4-feet deep.
"Whether he was stuck or not, he was there," Thurman said.
Phil was showing signs of eye irritation, possibly from lack of salt water exposure. Seals are not accustomed to fresh water. Although the mud was moist, it's not a seal's normal environment and there was a real concern that the animal might be suffering from dehydration and rising spring temperatures, Thurman said.
Although human handling of seals is generally avoided because such encounters are very stressful for the animals, circumstances required intervention, Thurman said.
MERR developed a complex rescue plan that was approved by NOAA and the animal rescue specialists. Two members from a National Aquarium rescue team were on hand to assist with equipment that MERR did not have, including a larger transport crate. Phil is over 5 feet long and weighs over 120 pounds, and MERR's largest crates weren't big enough.
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With 20 volunteers assisting and the Delaware State Police present to control traffic near the extraction route, Phil was netted and carried out on a stretcher.
"He is now at the National Aquarium for what we hope will be a short-term stay to get him hydrated and clear up the eye condition," Thurman said. "We're a little worried that he may have aspirated some mud, because he did try to flee and went deeper into the mud. We don't know yet if that is the case, but it's treatable with antibiotics."
Phil has lost some weight, possibly due to being unable to feed since he was last seen in water Thursday.
"The report I have today is that he is incredibly feisty and lively, so he's giving them a challenge," she said. "We are overjoyed, it was a successful capture. We spent so long monitoring this guy, he is so lovable. A lot of people in the community really took a liking to him, so we're happy and thankful. It was a great team effort."
Jennifer Dittmar is the manager of the animal rescue unit at the National Aquarium. She said that so far, Phil's treatment has been "normal and appropriate."
"We admitted him for rehab Tuesday night. Overall, he is doing really well," she said.
In addition to having lost weight, the seal "had a lot of eye discharge, consistent with an injury or infection of the eyes," Dittmar said.
Along with eye treatments, Phil is receiving antibiotics to treat any infections he may have received during his misadventure.
"His eyes are responding really well to treatment. The discharge each day is decreasing, the inflammation is decreasing as well," Dittmar said.
On arrival, Phil was fed fluids through a tube to treat dehydration, but he began eating sardines on his own Thursday morning.
The National Aquarium will continue medical treatment and monitor his vitals, which is routine for a rescued animal in rehab, Dittmar said. His diet will be steadily increased to his normal intake of 16 pounds of fish a day.
"He's been enjoying swimming in his rehab pool which is a cool 66 degrees. He has been resting quite a bit. It does seem like he was just really tired after everything that had happened," Dittmar said.
The typical rehab period for seals is two-and-a-half to three months, and although Phil's condition was "grave," he is expected to make a full recovery.
It's too early to tell when and where he will be released, but Dittmar said after talking with NOAA that it would probably be north of Delaware Bay.