Written by Caitlin Goettler.
As the nation’s lead agency for maritime safety, search and rescue cases are nothing new to the Coast Guard, but a rescue mission last week was a little unusual.
The Alaska-region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in coordination with the Alaska SeaLife Center, was responding to two abandoned walrus calves on the shores of Barrow on July 30. The calves were malnourished and required urgent veterinary attention.
“These guys were in critical condition and needed to get back to our veterinarian standing by in Anchorage,” said Tim Lebing, stranding coordinator for the Alaska SeaLife Center.
With no flights available from Barrow to Anchorage in time to save the calves, they called the Coast Guard for help.
“Even though this is a unique case, it aligns with our Coast Guard roles and missions,” said Capt. Melissa Rivera, commanding officer Air Station Kodiak. “With our new presence in the Arctic, we can provide our help and support in a variety of different ways.”
An Air Station Kodiak airplane crew already in Barrow for another mission worked with members of the Alaska SeaLife Center to determine the best way to safely transport the calves over 670 miles to Anchorage.
“We had a lot of questions for the vets,” said Petty Officer Second Class Brice Sayles, a member of the aircrew. “Because the animals were sick, we also wanted to make sure the vets would be joining us.”
Once the walrus were aboard in large kennels strapped to the floor, the aircrew made several other adjustments to ensure the safety of the animals including turning the heat completely off, making for a cold ride.
“I was excited to be a part of the rescue,” Sayles said. “I’ve never had to do something quite like that and it was a new experience.”
Although a walrus medevac is an unusual case for the Coast Guard, environmental stewardship and protection has long been a mission of the Coast Guard, especially in Alaska. It was the Revenue Cutter Service that examined exploited seal rookeries, which led to the Fur Seal Treaty of 1911 and ultimately the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In addition, Air Station Kodiak continues to regularly conduct observation flights over protected seal and walrus rookeries.
The Coast Guard previously assisted the Alaska SeaLife Center transport marine mammals in 2005 and 2007.
Upon their arrival in Anchorage, the walrus calves were transferred by road to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward where they are undergoing rehabilitation treatment. Because walrus are extremely social animals and almost immediately habituate to human care, they are not candidates for release.
“We were incredibly fortunate to have the Coast Guard able to fly us back,” Lebling said.
According to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it is inappropriate to approach any marine mammal within 100 yards. Mother walrus often leave their young for days in order to feed. Even if a calf appears to be alone and in distress, there is a good chance its mother will return soon. Human contact can make a walrus calf appear foreign to its mother and cause abandonment, so the appropriate action if abandonment is suspected is to call the Alaska SeaLife Center’s Stranded Marine Animal Hotline at 1-888-774-SEAL.