For days, the Alaska town of Sitka struggled to answer a question it had never dealt with before: How do you get a big, confused sea lion back to the sea?
The sea lion, a healthy 8-year-old adult male, was spotted about a quarter-mile from the ocean early Friday morning, the Anchorage Daily News reported.
A resident captured a video of the animal plodding down the dark street.
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Sea lions breathe air, so they do not need to be in water to survive. But they are adapted to a diet of marine animals and so cannot hunt on land, according to the Dolphin Research Center.
“He was in the roadway on Tongass Drive. He appears to be frightened and confused, and he’s been sort of hiding out in the bushes a little bit,” Julie Speegle of the National Marine Fisheries Service said at the time, according to KCAW. “At this point we are taking a wait-and-see approach and hoping that he finds his way back to the water by himself once things calm down a little bit.”
The animal wound up perched atop a doorway near a hospital. Firefighters, hoping to gently guide the lost and stressed animal back to the ocean, sprayed him with water.
“It started taking off … went down, oh, about halfway to the water, with us sort of pushing it along with the hose,” said fire chief Dave Miller, according to the Anchorage Daily News. “And all of a sudden, it decided ‘I’m done with this,’ and it went into the woods.”
The sea lion hid in the trees and bushes, prompting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to warn crowds of curious onlookers to stay away.
“This is my first sea lion in town, yes,” said Craig Warren, the fire department’s senior engineer, according to KTVA. “I have not seen any of this before, I’ve been here 27 years.”
The sea lion stayed hidden away in the woods for two more days, never traveling back across the road, KTOO reported.
But on Monday, wildlife officials decided they needed to give the stressed-out animal a hand. With the help of a veterinarian, they pinged the sea lion with a tranquilizer dart and watched as he drifted off to sleep, according to the station.
Then they carefully rolled the big animal onto a front-loader, then a truck, and drove him to the ocean, where they positioned him so he’d wake up facing the waves, the Anchorage Daily News reported.
Video from a resident captured the moment when the sea lion woke up and realized he’d made his way home. He waves his head around a few times, then slowly, slowly eases himself into the water.
“There you go! Go home!” someone says off camera. When the sea lion finally disappears under the waves, bystanders shout, whistle and clap.
“He didn’t even look back and they watched him for awhile and saw him catch a fish. So that’s a good sign,” Speegle said, according to KCAW.
So far, the sea lion seems to be back to his normal ocean-faring ways, KCTV reported. But now a satellite tag and tracking marks will help scientists keep an eye on him so they can make sure he never gets lost again, according to the station.