PHIPPSBURG — It’s hard to imagine why about 200 people would gather on a cold beach in the dead of winter.

Yet there they were, huddled in a wide semicircle around what appeared to be a dog cage in the middle of the beach. They were there to witness the release of Premie, the last seal still under the care of Marine Mammals of Maine.

Premie was found nine months ago north of Rockland. Alone and with little prospect of survival, the harbor seal pup was rescued by the College of the Atlantic and taken to Marine Mammals of Maine in Harpswell, the only organization outfitted to take care of seals like Premie and help them return to the wild. The organization boasts a triage and rehab center that can help seals found in Maine recover and return to the wild.

“We’re the only ones with something like that in the state,” said Executive Director Lynda Doughty. “So she came to us on May 26.”

The first thing the team in Harpswell noticed was the seal’s size. She was only 11 pounds. A typical seal her age should weigh 25-30 pounds.

A medical examination led the team to determine that she was born prematurely. Doughty estimated that she was rescued when she was less than 48 hours old.

Generally, seals needing long-term care are transported to out-of-state facilities. But Premie’s situation presented a unique case: She wasn’t stable enough to be moved.

“So she stayed with us as a long-term care rehab patient, and she had a lot of trial and tribulations along the way because of being so small,” Doughty said.

That stay was complicated over the summer, when dozens of dead harbor seals began washing up along the Maine coast — many of them pups. The culprit for the die-off was largely disease, with many of the dead seals testing positive for avian influenza or distemper.

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 animals. Doughty noted that scientists are still looking into why exactly distemper devastated the seal population this year, but she explained that it was likely that many of the younger seals had not been exposed to the disease, making them particularly vulnerable because they had not built up a resistance.

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

Premie was quickly quarantined from other animals, and she was eventually approved for a vaccine for the virus so she could be released into the wild without succumbing to the disease. According to Doughty, she was the first seal to be vaccinated in Maine.

While most long-term care animals stay about four to five months maximum, Premie stayed there nine months as she grew and prepared for life on the outside. Her stay was also lengthened by respiratory issues and an independent streak that resisted efforts to help her recover.

“She’s a very independent seal, I have to say. She’s very stubborn,” Doughty said with a laugh. “She doesn’t want to follow the progress we had for her plan. So it’s not surprising she took a little longer for her rehab process.”

Still, staff members worked 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.

There was a buzz in the air as Premie was brought out in her cage to the release site. A tiny nose poked out of the cage, and after a few tentative sniffs, Premie’s sleek head emerged to look around. But almost instantly, she withdrew into the cage. 

Staffers tipped the cage up slowly, coaxing Premie out onto the beach. And then finally, Premie was on the beach.

At first, it was not clear whether Premie knew what she was supposed to do. She seemed content where she was, sniffing a nearby shell. Then, she shuffled toward the ocean and into the waves, a sleek head bobbing above the water.

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Premie swims away after being released back into the ocean by Marine Mammals of Maine. (Louissa Strout/Contributed photo)

Premie the seal hesitantly pokes her head out of her cage on Head Beach in Phippsburg. (Louissa Strout/Contributed Photo)

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