Laura Wiens, The Triplicate

Elephant seal is living large: He's headed for Pittsburgh and a 3,000-pound future

What a difference a few months make.

Last November, the elephant seal yearling lay helpless on Pebble Beach, having wasted away to 140 pounds. Pecked at by birds, he was blind in both eyes.

That's when he was rescued by the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center. Four months and 360 pounds of weight gain later, he's about to be shipped to a climate-controlled saltwater pool in a Pittsburgh aquarium, where he'll eventually expand to about 3,000 pounds.

Things are looking up for Coolio, who currently consumes 30 to 40 pounds of fish a day in Crescent City.

"He's eating us out of house and home," said Dr. Dennis Wood, founder and director of the local center.

But help is on the way. Or rather, Coolio is on his way to help. A lifetime living situation awaits at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.

Wood speculates that Coolio's rough start in life was due to the fact that elephant seals only nurse for about a month, when they build up a huge fat store to give them time to learn to hunt on their own.

Not all are successful, however, and when Coolio washed up on Pebble Beach, he couldn't "fight or move away," from avian predators, Wood said.

He was probably born near Castle Rock a year earlier - "He came without a birth certificate, unfortunately," said Wood.

"He was probably 250 to 300 pounds at one pointand then began to waste away," said Wood. "He'll grow to probably 3,000 pounds."

Coolio has been visited for the past few days by Paul Moylett, assistant curator at the Pittsburgh aquarium.

"He's going to be pretty impressive," Moylett said of Coolio. "He's pretty relaxed, has calmed down a bit. He's even being hand fed," a fact the curator finds amazing because, "I mean, he's a wild animal."

Wood and Moylett hope to send Coolio to his new home by the end of April. It took months of cutting through red tape to have him classified as "non-releasable" back into the wild, Wood said. Various agencies are involved in the process, including the NOAA Fisheries Service.

"There's a lot of federal hoops you have to go through to move an animal to a permanent home," said Wood.

So how do you ship an elephant seal?

"We'll Fed Ex our 500-pound friend to Pittsburgh," said Wood.

"We would have used a large dog kennel, but he grew beyond that," said Moylett. Now, a polar bear transport cage may be required.

"It's a little overkill for a seal, but we'll need something more structurally sound," said the curator. "He has definitely filled out and has a healthy appetite. That helps us out as caretakers. We can move forward with establishing a bond, with food being the greatest enforcer."

Coolio's new home will consist of a climate-controlled 276,000-gallon saltwater pool in the Water's Edge exhibit. He'll have the place to himself for a while so that the caretakers can work with him one-on-one and establish a trust-based relationship in a quiet environment.

Eventually, he'll share the pool with some California sea lions, Moylett said.