When volunteers from the Riverhead Foundation rescued one-year-old Pepper on March 8, he was dehydrated and weak. The group took him to their facility, located behind the Long Island Aquarium, where he was one of six harp seals in rehabilitation.
Pepper was probably one of Riverhead's healthiest rehabbing seals. One was rescued with a broken jaw and swollen fin -- and hadn't been named because staffers weren't certain if he'd survive. Another became entangled in plastic waste on Ponquogue Beach last month and still has a visible wound on his neck.
In Pepper's case, about a month in rehab paid off. He had become weak by eating sand and rocks, which gave him stomach issues. As a response to stress, harp seals, lovers of the cold, will eat snow and ice. But this season, there was very little of that.
"It's mostly because of stress," said Maxine Montello from the Riverhead Foundation Rescue Program. "People are getting too close to them ... You're supposed to be about 150 yards away from them. When people start getting close, they're not able to defend themselves."
Now that Pepper had regained a healthy weight and his stomach was back to normal, the Riverhead Foundation invited the public to watch him be released back into the ocean.
For volunteers, watching Pepper waddle from the sand into the water was bittersweet. A month's work was over, in just a few slippery seconds.
"That's our goal, the preservation of this species," Montello said.
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