PHIPPSBURG — It’s hard to imagine what would draw about 200 people to a cold Phippsburg beach in the dead of winter.

Yet there they were Monday, huddled in a wide semicircle around what appeared to be a dog cage. They were there to witness the release of Premie, a young harbor seal rescued and nursed to health by Marine Mammals of Maine.

Premie was found nine months ago north of Rockland. The seal pup was rescued by the College of the Atlantic and taken to Marine Mammals of Maine in Harpswell, the only group in southern and midcoast Maine that is federally authorized to care for abandoned seals until they can be released.

The seal pup was only 11 pounds when it was found – a typical seal her age would be 25-30 pounds.

“She was really underweight when she came in,” said Executive Director Lynda Doughty, who estimated that the seal was rescued when she was less than 48 hours old, hence the name Premie.

The Harpswell facility is permitted to keep up to four seals on-site at any one time. Generally, that means it is used for triage and stabilization of seals rescued in Maine, while seals needing long-term care are transported to out-of-state facilities. But Premie’s situation presented a unique case.

“We actually kept her particular case at our center because she wasn’t stable at first to be transported. So she stayed with us as a long-term care rehab patient, and she had a lot of trials and tribulations along the way because of being so small,” Doughty said.

That stay was complicated over the summer by the dozens of dead harbor seals washing up along the Maine coast – many just pups. The main culprit was disease, with many of the bodies testing positive for avian influenza or distemper.

Premie leans on the edge of a pool, awaiting her feeding, in August at the Marine Mammals of Maine rehabilitation center. She spent nine months there, originally weighing 11 pounds.

Over the course of a year, Marine Mammals of Maine generally responds to about 300 animals. So far this year, they’ve responded to 1,037. Scientists are still looking into why distemper devastated the population this year, but Doughty said it was likely that many of the younger seals had not been exposed to the disease and had built up no resistance to it.

The distemper outbreak took a toll on the seals in Marine Mammals of Maine’s care as well.

“Most of the seals that she shared a pod with died. She’s kind of the one that survived out of the bunch that was with her,” said Doughty.

Premie was quickly quarantined, and she was eventually approved for a vaccine for the virus so she could be released without contracting it. According to Doughty, she is the first seal to be vaccinated in Maine.

Because of her diminutive size, Premie stayed in Marine Mammals of Maine’s rehab facility much longer than most seals – about nine months compared with the four to five.

“She’s a very independent seal, I have to say. She’s very stubborn,” said Doughty with a laugh. “So it’s not surprising she took a little longer for her rehab process.”

Staff members had to teach her survival skills, like introducing live fish to her pod so she could learn how to catch food. Eventually, she was ready to return to the ocean.

And so on Christmas Eve, the Marine Mammals of Maine team put Premie in her cage, popped her in the back of their vehicle and drove her down to Head Beach in Phippsburg for the release. By the time they arrived, cars had already filled the small parking lot and lined the side of the road. It turned out that Premie’s story had resonated with people in the midcoast, and cold weather wasn’t going to stop them from witnessing the final stage of Premie’s journey back to the wild.

There was a buzz in the air as Premie was brought out in her cage to the release site. Volunteers and staff members gathered in the middle of the circle, some holding small panels that they would use to direct her to the ocean if she started heading the wrong way. At 9:30, it was time.

As a hush fell over the crowd, staff members opened the cage. Second ticked past as bystanders craned to get the first glimpse of the little seal. Several people stood ankle- or knee-deep in the ocean, with ice-cold waves splashing against their legs, as they fought for the perfect vantage. Others had climbed up onto the dunes.

Finally, a tiny nose poked out of the cage, testing the strange environment it had been thrust into. After a few tentative sniffs, Premie’s sleek head emerged to look around. But almost instantly, she seemed to regret it.

But whether she wanted to or not, it was time to return to the ocean. Staffers tipped the cage up slowly, coaxing Premie out onto the beach.

At first, it was not clear Premie knew what she was supposed to do. She seemed content where she was. Then, at long last, she shuffled her way toward the ocean.

And then it was over, the sleek head bobbing above the water as Premie swam out to sea.

The crowd began to disperse as spectators sought refuge from the cold, driving wind, content in knowing that Premie was finally home.

Nathan Strout can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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