The seal named “Iris” has been in the Pacific Ocean before, but as she returned to it Wednesday, she saw it for the first time.
“She was functionally blind, she had no vision in either eye which explains the problems she was having out there catching fish, functioning and surviving,” SeaWorld veterinarian Dr. Hendrik Nollens said.
SeaWorld staff rescued Iris as a pup in June. She had lost her mother and she was starving.
“We were going off of clues. The first one was – does she see us? If we walk up to the pool quietly can she see that we’re there. Then, we build up gradually from there – can she see live fish?” Nollens said.
It turns out she had cataracts, the vet said.
SeaWorld teamed up with veterinary ophthalmologists from Tustin to perform an unprecedented surgery.
They used the same technique that is used on humans, but it had never been done before on a seal.
Getting released into the ocean near Point Loma was a long journey in itself.
Vets tested her vision several times in different pools to make sure she could handle it. She’s also returning to the wild with a special piece of headgear.
SeaWorld researchers will be able to keep tabs on Iris’ progress using a global positioning system radio transmitter until next spring. Her habits, where she goes and how she adapts to the wild will be monitored.
“We’ll be able to monitor her and we’ll be able to find out how she’s doing. It also gives us the ability to go down and check on her. If we know where she is on the beach we can have people go down and see what her body condition is.”
They will also be able to learn more about the species as a whole.
Iris is a small harbor seal with a big support system behind her. Her success story will help SeaWorld scientists help other animals with similar injuries.
“The mission of our program is to return these animals [to the wild] and give them a second chance and we’re definitely doing that with her,” Nollens said.