Fort Rupert Elementary students cheer as Pegasus hops into the water at Airport Beach after being released from her crate by Lindsaye Akhurst of Vancouver Aquarium Friday

Seals bring squeals

Pair of rehabilitated seals releases on the North Island by Vancouver Aquarium staff.

More than 80 North Island school children got their science lesson at area beaches last Friday, when a pair of rescued harbour seal pups were returned from the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre and released in Port Hardy and Port Alice.

Pegasus, a female seal rescued this summer near Sointula, and Titan, a male discovered at the Jeune Landing dryland sort and rescued with the assistance of loggers, were flown to Port Hardy by Pacific Coastal Airlines. They were accompanied by Lindsaye Akhurst and Taryn Robinson of the Vancouver Aquarium, which operates the rescue centre.

The animals had been provided food, conditioning and, when necessary, medical attention from aquarium staff since being found emaciated and apparently abandoned by area residents.

“This is where they’ve come from,” Akhurst said when asked why it was important the seals be returned to North Vancouver Island for release. “They are possibly familiar with the area. There’s also a genetic difference between them and the animals in the Vancouver area. We want to give them the best chance at survival.”

After being unloaded at Port Hardy Airport, the seals were driven a short distance to Airport Beach, where 38 Fort Rupert Elementary School students and assorted teachers and parent chaperones waited on a rainy, blustery day.

Akhurst and Robinson were accompanied by local Fisheries and Oceans Canada officers Kelly Aitkan and Natasha Dickinson, who helped carry Pegasus to the beach in a standard portable dog kennel as the kids squealed in delight.

The youths pointed and laughed as Pegasus hopped straight from the kennel to the foamy waves before swimming away into the surf.

“It’s a neat opportunity for the kids,” said Akhurst. “It’s not something they get to see very often. They get a chance to see them up close and personal, and to be able to see them hopefully thrive in the wild.”

It was also a chance to reinforce lessons, as was the case roughly an hour later when the entourage arrived at Jeune Landing with Titan. The entire student body of Sea View Elementary Junior Secondary School — 45 strong — got a quick primer from Aitken before Titan’s kennel was opened and he splashed into the waters of Neuroutsis Inlet.

“If you saw a baby seal on the beach, would you try to feed it and pet it?” Aitken asked.

“No!” the kids replied en masse.

“Would you tell a grown-up?”

“Yeah!”

Many Sea View students are particularly knowledgeable about handling sea life. Students at the school gained attention in March 2011 when they self-published a booklet titled Kaouk the Trailer Park Sea Lion, the story of a Steller Sea Lion found in a local trailer park in December 2010 before being rehabilitate and released by the MMRC.

“This is a chance for them to connect to nature,” school principal D’Arcy Deacon said of the students. “Environmental education is a big part of our learning at Sea View School, and this gives them a chance to connect to some things that have happened here in the past.”

Unlike Pegasus, who made for the open water and never looked back, Titan circled back to the beach on a couple of occasions, rolling in kelp near the rocks and lifting his head to get a look at the massed schoolkids before turning to swim away.

“Both of these animals were brought in very emaciated,” said Akhurst. “Titan was found just round the corner here, at the log sort. As you can see, he’s about four times as big as he was when he came to us.”