A young harbor seal that in the spring was taken from the beach by a well-meaning but misinformed couple who thought he'd been abandoned was returned to the wild on Tuesday.

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OCEAN SHORES — No. 100848 looked all baffled, cute little harbor-seal button eyes and all. He suddenly had to face big Mother Nature.

He didn’t swim away from the humans who had come to release him on Tuesday afternoon at Grays Harbor; he swam toward them.

Hey!

This wasn’t the safe, 10-foot-diameter tank where No. 100848 had made his home for the past 12-plus weeks at the PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood, food always handy and a couple dozen herring a day thrown in.

No. 100848 made the news this spring when a young couple from Payette, Idaho, at a Memorial Day Weekend oceanside vacation in Westport, saw a lonely harbor-seal pup on the beach.

All alone, no mom in sight. How could that bundle with the soulful eyes ever survive?

So, as recounted by Eric Morgan, a NOAA special agent who investigated the case, the young couple, in their 20s, took the pup to their motel room. “They tried to do the right thing. They contacted the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. Eventually they were put in touch with PAWS,” said Morgan.

“But they had absolutely no knowledge of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. I explained to them that sometimes it’s normal for the mother to leave the pup on the beach [as she goes in the water to look for food]. We certainly can’t get involved in that cycle.”

He said the couple — “from an agricultural town” were, to say the least, unnerved at the possible penalty: Up to a year in jail and up to a $50,000 fine.

Morgan issued them a written warning. “Young kids,” he explained.

Now roughly 5 ½ months old, No. 100848 has spent most of his young life in captivity: He was less than 2 months old when he was taken from the beach.

He was named No. 100848 because PAWS doesn’t want to humanize animals it plans to return to the wild. The 10 signifies 2010, and the 848 signifies he was the 848th animal of any sort taken in by PAWS this year.

As much as possible, PAWS tried to shield the seal from human contact. There was plastic tarp around his tank so there would be no eye contact with people. The seal got a plastic ball and ring to play with, but there were no trainer types trying to get him to do cute things.

His main companions lately were three ducks and some seagulls in a couple of other tanks.

Since Memorial Day, the pup had grown from 16 pounds to 50, which made him big enough to go back to the wild. At maturity, he could reach 245 pounds or so, according NOAA.

At PAWS’ Lynnwood facility, it took only one swoop of a net to catch him. He didn’t put up a fight as he was taken to the dog carrier. Then it was a 150-mile trip to Ocean Shores.

About 50 yards out, in 2 feet of water, the kennel door was opened.

No. 100848, an orange plastic NOAA marker clipped onto one of his flippers, was in no hurry to get out.

“This is all new to him,” said Kevin Mack, a wildlife biologist who works for PAWS. “He’s now in a world without walls. He’s wondering what’s going on.”

After a couple of minutes, No. 100848 ventured out. Around him were Mack, some other PAWS workers, and TV and print cameramen.

He swam right to them, and onlookers on the beach commented how media-savvy the seal seemed to be.

But, said Mack, more likely, “we’re familiar, and he thinks, ‘This is movement; I’m going to follow this.’ “

As the people waded back toward land, No. 100848 followed them. Mack asked everyone to clamber up some rocks to the shoreline.

The seal still hung around, checking things out. But eventually he began to swim away.

Mack said NOAA picked this spot at Grays Harbor because there is a sand bar at low tide where seals like to hang out, and hopefully No. 100848 would find it.

Mack also was pleased to note that he had seen a bunch of small fish swimming around when he was wading out — handy meals for No. 100848. Lately, at the PAWS tank, live herring had been thrown in so he would learn to hunt.

“He’s got some blubber on him, so he isn’t particularly hungry right now,” said Mack. “He’ll get hungry tomorrow.”

A male harbor seal can live into his mid-20s, if he survives disease and escapes predators.

“Transient” killer whales, the orcas that pass through this area but are not resident, find harbor seals a particularly tasty treat.

In real-life nature, charming animal eats charming animal.

Sometimes, the killer whales just kill the seals and then don’t eat them, in what one research paper described as “play behavior.”

Mack stayed at the beach for an hour after No. 100848 was let out. He watched the seal swim farther and farther away, until he could no longer see him.

Over the years, PAWS has cared for and released some 50 seals.

Mack said he does not grow attached to them, even if they have cute button eyes.

“Cute button eyes,” he said, “look much better when they’re looking at me from the ocean.”

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 elacitis@seattletimes.com