The Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, is the northernmost airport in the United States. It’s been getting a lot of snow lately, and employees of the state’s Department of Transportation & Public Facilities, or DOTPF, have had their hands full cleaning up the runways.
This past Monday afternoon, October 23, the DOTPF finished up a job, and headed back to the airport shop to regroup. But almost immediately, they got a call from flight services asking them to come back. Had they missed a spot? Not exactly:
That, if you can’t tell, is a bearded seal—in Inuit, an ugjuk, an oogrook, or variations thereof. “500 lb Oogruk sitting on my runway,” Scott Babcock, the DOTPF employee who snapped the above photo, wrote on Facebook. “Most peculiar.” (Later estimates put it at about 450 pounds—still impressive.)
Alaska has 282 land-based airports, far and away the most of any state. As such, “runways are really just part of the landscape,” says Meadow Bailey, the DOTPF’s Communications Director. “We end up having a lot of wildlife… we deal with musk oxen, lots of birds, caribou, [and] polar bears.”
Seals, though, rarely visit. “It’s a unique situation,” Bailey says. “All of the staff that I’ve talked to, no one remembers seeing a seal on the runway [before this].” No one is quite sure why it chose to come, although its tracks revealed that it traveled about a mile on land, taking a roundabout route from the nearby Chukchi Sea.
The DOTPF called Animal Control, who brought a pickup truck. When that didn’t seem like the right tool, they left for a bit and returned again, this time with a sled and a snow machine. “They were able to take the sled onto the runway, and roll the seal onto the sled,” says Bailey. “They didn’t have to tranquilize it or anything like that.” (Bailey wasn’t sure what happened to it after that, but we’ve contacted various authorities and will update as soon as we know where it ended up.)
And so the runway was clear once again. Everyone went back to their business, Bailey says. “It didn’t hold up any flights.”
But, she adds, people have been making a lot of jokes. One of her favorites: “No flights will depart without a seal of approval.”