Over the past couple of weeks the National Marine Life Center’s staff and interns have been involved with monitoring a number of stranded seals around the Cape.
There are four species of seals that live on Cape Cod: the hooded seal, the harp seal, the harbor seal and the gray seal. Two of these animals are seasonal visitors: the hooded and harp seals, and the other two live here year round: the harbor and gray seals. Our seasonal seals spend part of their lives in arctic waters. For our year round seal residents, it is pupping season. This means that this is the time of year that the females are giving birth to pups. Seal pups are very independent – pups from some species only stay with the mother for 4 days! When you see a seal on the beach a number of things could be happening. Seals are only semi-aquatic, so they spend part of their time in the water and part of their time on land. The animal could be perfectly fine and independent from its mother and just looking for a warm nap in the sun. Frequently, seal mothers leave the pups on the beach for a short amount of time so they can go fishing.
Seal pups are not as experienced or accomplished swimmers as their adult mothers, and don’t have the stamina or speed to keep up with their mothers while they’re hunting. So the mothers will leave their pup on the beach while they eat and come back for them later on. When people spot a seal on the beach, it will draw a crowd. If the mother comes back to retrieve the pup and there’s a number of people on the beach, the female will probably not approach the beach until the people are gone – even one person could be enough of a deterrent to keep her away from her pup. The baby can’t live too long without the mother – a couple days without her milk, and it will starve. If the pup is still with its mother – it’s probably not old enough to hunt for itself yet.
The first time I was able to go out with our animal care technician, Kate Shaffer, to check out a seal pup was a couple weeks ago. There was a very young harbor seal pup on the beach. This animal was probably not old enough to be independent yet. The organization responsible for marine mammal stranding rescues on the Cape is IFAW – the International Fund for Animal Welfare. When an IFAW volunteer arrives on the scene, the first thing they do is set up a barrier around the animal to keep people back. The goal is 100-150 feet on all sides – but that may not always be realistic to enforce. We give the animal as much space as possible and monitor it for 24-48 hours to keep people away from it and to find out if the animal is responsive to its environment, if it’s behaving normally, and to determine if it looks emaciated or if it’s suffering from any wounds.
The best thing for someone to do when he/she sees an animal on the beach is to LEAVE IT ALONE! Unfortunately, some people we encountered that day didn’t understand that – despite our attempt to explain that. Because seals are semi-aquatic, their skin is covered in fur, and doesn’t need to stay wet like a fish or whale. It is perfectly happy warming up on the beach, nice and dry. One woman was so distraught that we weren’t keeping the seal wet that she approached the animal and poured cold water on it. All this woman accomplished in this situation was scaring the seal – and causing it to leave the beach and swim out into the ocean, thus using up some of its valuable energy. We managed to find it again – it had found a quiet spot along the rocks on the jetty.
From there I hung out with some nice fishermen and watched over the seal for a couple hours – while trying not to look directly at it too much or take too many pictures. I tried not to draw too much attention to it so that it wouldn’t have to deal with the stress of loud people. My plan worked a little too well, and some teenagers jumped into the water from the jetty about 200 feet away. Although they weren’t terribly close to the pup, the splash scared it enough that it started swimming again. Kate and I followed it around the jetty as far as we could before it finally lost us. We hoped that the pup’s mother would be able to find it even though it had traveled a little way from where she left it. Unfortunately, the next morning it was found again on the beach. This is a mixed bag because it’s good news that the seal survived the night, but it’s bad news that the seal was not picked up by its mother.
The next time we had a seal pup call was a couple weeks later, and it was a different species – a grey seal. This seal was probably old enough to be on its own; it had just hauled out onto the rocks along the Canal and was taking a nap. The role of the volunteers (in this case, the NMLC interns) was to answer questions about the seal, and just monitor its behavior to check for any abnormalities.
We sat our with the seal for a couple hours – just talking to people and watching the seal wiggle around on the rocks, it was a great day! Eventually, the animal went back into the water on its own and continued on its journey. It was a great opportunity to spend some time with the grey seal and see how it moves on land.
So the moral of the story is to leave seals alone if you see them on the beach. Dumping water on them or putting a blanket over them is actually harassment, and will hurt the animal much more than it could help. Seals don’t need to be wet – in fact if they’re coming up on the beach, that means that they want to dry off. Putting a blanket on a seal just reduces its ability to control its body temperature, and will probably cause it to overheat. Leave the rescue work to the professionals – please call the IFAW stranding hotline (508) 743-9548 if you find a stranded marine mammal.