WATERFORD — A lock of the Champlain Canal became the home of an unlikely visitor in July when a gray seal made its way to upstate New York.
Today, employees of the state Canal Corp. worked alongside the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation to rescue the animal before winter hits and transport it back to Long Island to be rehabilitated.
Many Capital Region residents said they weren’t aware of the lock’s new resident until the rescue mission was well underway, even though the seal had been “enjoying upstate New York for the better part of the summer,” according to Shane Mahar, deputy director of communications at the Canal Corp.
Today was the first time many local residents had heard about the seal in Waterford.
“It’s important to keep in mind today is day 166 for the seal,” said Tom Lake, estuary naturalist for the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Hudson River Estuary Program.
The seal first was discovered when a canal employee and his wife kayaked through the lock chamber on July 26, and a lone seal popped his head out of the water “to say hello,” Mahar said.
Since it arrived in lock C-1, the seal had been feeding on catfish, walleye, large and smallmouth bass, white suckers and eels.
“The list is long. Seals are the ultimate carnivores. They are high-end predators,” Lake said. “Even when they’re in an alien environment, they’re still adaptable.”
There is one thing the gray seal would have a difficult time adapting to, though: a winter spent in a canal lock on the Hudson.
“By mid-January the river will freeze over,” Lake said. “They’re mammals, so they have to haul out. It can be a challenge to get out. It’s kind of like a bathtub. The seal could get trapped, tire and drown.”
The seal, who has been named Sal, Sammy and Charlie by various members of the community, likely entered the lower Hudson River in May. Lake explained that 50 to 60 harbor seals travel up the Hudson together annually and “haul out” when winter hits.
Gray seals, on the other hand, are far more rare in this type of environment.
“This is the second gray seal we’ve ever seen in the Hudson,” Lake said, adding that the first was in Hyde Park in 2011.
The gray seal in Waterford likely tagged along with a group of harbor seals, Lake said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had to approve today’s effort to rescue the seal because it is a federal lock, Lake said. Because the gray seal is a federally protected animal, the mission was approved.
Curious local residents and news crews leaned over the railings of the lock in hopes of glimpsing the seal one last time. Some locals did catch him peeking out from below the surface.
Lake’s grandson, 5-year-old Tommy Jackson, said he got to see the seal before it was rescued.
Added Troy resident Sera Hovanecz, who traveled to the lock on her lunch break to see the seal: “Give me a bucket of herring and I’ll get him out of there.”
Canal Corp. employees began pumping down the water in the lock Thursday afternoon. Mahar said a crew of six to eight people entered the lock shortly after 3 p.m. today, corraled the seal, and coaxed it into a cage they lifted with a crane.
“Had him out of the water in about 30 minutes,” Mahar said.
The canal employees then transferred the seal to a shed to assess its health before sending it to Riverhead in Long Island.
The seal had a yellow tag on its left rear flipper, indicating it previously was rescued from a similar situation by Riverhead, rehabilitated and released back into the wild.
Normally, gray seals avoid swimming farther south than Cape Cod, according to Lake. In order to make it to lock C-1 in Waterford, the seal had to pass through two other locks, including one in Troy.
Although some onlookers called the seal “Sal,” one little girl from Turnpike Elementary School in Troy thought another named suited him better.