- Associated Press - Saturday, December 13, 2014

KETCHIKAN, Alaska (AP) - A head that belonged to a massive male sea lion found dead has disappeared from a pier in Ketchikan, Alaska.

The head had been dangling from the pier into the water so it could be examined after it was cleaned by ocean critters, the Ketchikan Daily News reported (https://bit.ly/1qKdHnd ).

Scientist Gary Freitag of the University of Alaska Fairbanks had examined the animal’s carcass over the summer for clues to its cause of death. He had been planning to study the head for more hints after it was submerged for about six months, he said.

But within two weeks the head was missing, and Freitag says it looks like the rope was cut.

“I can’t picture anybody taking it,” Freitag said. “It probably was pretty ripe.”

The seal had been found dead in July on the rocks of Refuge Cove, and its head had been tied to a float at the north end of Bar Harbor.

If the rope was just cut and the head wasn’t stolen, then it’s probably at the bottom of the harbor, Freitag said.

“There’s not a lot of current down there on the bottom,” said Freitag, who has been diving before in the area.

Hunters often use similar methods for cleaning deer heads, said Dan Berg, the senior assistant harbormaster for City Port and Harbors.

“It’s not uncommon for us to find stuff like that, but it’s not our policy to cut it off if we do,” Berg said.

There are cameras throughout Bar Harbor, but most are trained on the ramps used to enter and exit the area, according to Berg.

“I doubt very much that we have any video record of someone coming or going with a sea lion head,” he said.

Freitag, who also works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stranded marine mammal network, said laboratory results about the animal’s cause of death haven’t yet been returned.

But Freitag said he’s pretty sure the sea lion had a heart problem. He struggled to identify the animal’s heart when he examined the carcass in July, because it was damaged or degraded enough to have lost its shape.

“There’s no question that there was a problem there,” he said.

The head was kept partly to discover whether the sea lion had been shot, which made some wonder whether someone trying to cover up a misdeed.

Freitag said it would be impossible to match a bullet to a firearm, “but people don’t know that.”

When the time comes again to hang another sea lion head from a dock, Freitag said he’s going to be more careful.

“Next time I’ll put it where I know nobody can get to it,” he said.

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Information from: Ketchikan (Alaska) Daily News, https://www.ketchikandailynews.com

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