After a minute or two of sniffing seaweed and getting reacquainted with wet sand, Buck the sea lion made his way toward the sea Friday and disappeared into the waves.
Three months after being rescued, Buck was released back into the wild Friday at Border Field State Park in Imperial Beach.
“He has a strong, domineering personality and he’s an adult male California sea lion,” said Jody Westberg, a senior animal care specialist at SeaWorld San Diego. "That’s what we want to see, and I think Buck’s ready to go, too.”
After being injured for about a week, Buck was picked up in La Jolla by SeaWorld Animal Rescue in October.
At first the rescue team believed he may have been in a rough fight with another sea lion, but an examination revealed he had been shot point-blank range with a shotgun.
Buck lost an eye, and 50 or more pieces of buckshot were found in his muscle and blubber, Westberg said.
But an infection he suffered healed and he gained more than 50 pounds while being cared for, and Friday he returned to his natural home.
“When you rescue an animal with that severe trauma to its face, you’re really not sure if they can be rehabilitated or returned to the wild so today this is the reward,” Westberg said.
“And throughout Buck’s rehabilitation, he’s really showed us he has the attitude of a survivor,” she continued.
He was released near the U.S.-Mexico border because the beach is secluded and near the Coronado Islands.
“We always want to set these animals up for success when we return them to the wild,” Westberg said. “The Coronado Islands are known as an area where there is a sea lion population and there are rookeries [breeding grounds] and that they thrive there.”
Another sea lion found shot on the La Jolla shoreline weeks before Buck died of its wounds. A suspect in the shooting of the sea lions has not been found, Westberg said.
Any person convicted of shooting a sea lion can face a $100,000 fine, one year in jail, or both, NOAA Fisheries Service said.