Friday, April 5, 2013

Buddy has left the building— or rather, the beach.

Northern Elephant Seal, "Buddy", on February 26th,
one day after hauling out to molt.
Note: Photo taken with telephoto lens from safe distance away.
Staff photo.

On February 25th, residents of an apartment complex in Port Townsend's downtown area were startled to find a 400-pound seal on their back patio. They were concerned that the seal was injured and reported the animal to the East Jefferson County Marine Mammal Stranding Network (EJCMMSN) at 360-385-5582 ext. 103. The EJCMMSN is run by PTMSC staff and volunteers, who promptly responded.   

The seal was identified as a juvenile Northern Elephant Seal (Mirounga angustirostris) that was beginning to molt.  Molting is a natural condition all elephant seals go through. Once a year, they shed their short, dense pelage along with large patches of old skin. The process can take 4 to 5 weeks. During this time, the seal will haul out along the shoreline, which warms up the skin and speeds up the molting process. Molting looks horrible and is often mistaken for injuries to the animal. Sometimes juveniles get what is called scabby molt with skin lesions-- this looks particularly gruesome.  

Photo taken March 3rd, six days after hauling out to molt.
Note: Photo taken with telephoto lens from safe distance away.
Photo credit: Patt Roche.

This elephant seal, affectionately named Buddy by apartment residents, is likely a juvenile male. Adult male elephant seals sport the attractive trunk-like snout that gives the species its name. You may have seen videos of these colossal animals, averaging 14 feet in length and weighing upwards of 5,000 pounds. Females are significantly smaller but still quite large, measuring closer to 10 feet and around 1,300 pounds. Northern Elephant Seals are polygamous, with an adult male dominating a large group of females during the breeding season. Young males are commonly pushed out of the breeding colony and may stray far away. Enter Buddy. 

Apartment residents hand-crafted a sign to keep people and dogs away.
Staff photo. 

Just why did Buddy haul out to molt on this busy beach? We don't know. Nature is often mysterious like that. Whatever the reason, we wanted to make his stay as stress-free as possible and keep people safe. EJCMMSN volunteers, in conjunction with apartment residents, set up signs and yellow tape to keep people and dogs a safe distance away. On the weekend, an entourage of caring EJCMMSN volunteers "seal sat" around the clock during daylight hours. Together, they educated more than 100 people about Buddy, the molting process, and elephant seals in general, all while attempting to minimize disturbance to the seal.

A quick story about Buddy: Dana Kovac and I were taking our turn at seal sitting one cool sunny Saturday, and chatting with an apartment resident. This day Buddy had quite neatly lodged himself in between the apartment building and some pilings jutting out from the beach, in what looked like a terribly uncomfortable place to lay. But then we were told that Buddy had chosen the exact spot the residents plant their tomatoes, which is the warmest place on the patio. How's that for clever?

Buddy was last seen on March 7th. After a week and a half of lounging on the apartment's back patio, he headed into the water and did not return. Presumably, to find a better place to finish molting. 

Here's to you Buddy, may you have finished sloughing your old dead fur on a peaceful sandy beach void of our prodding eyes and curious canine friends. Thank you for gracing us with your presence

And many thanks to the kind and protective residents who watched over Buddy and the EJCMMSN volunteers who donated their time and skills to help this special elephant seal!

What should YOU do if you see a marine mammal in distress on the beach?

1. Stay back (NOAA recommends a distance of 100 yards). Keep people and dogs away.
2. Call the appropriate number below

To report a marine mammal in Eastern Jefferson County, call PTMSC at 360-385-5582 ext. 103
To report a marine mammal anywhere else, call NOAA Stranding Hotline at 1-800-853-1964
If a marine mammal is being harassed or harmed, call NOAA Enforcement Hotline at 1-800-853-1964

It is against federal law, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, to disturb a marine mammal. 

Danae Presler
EJCMMSN Educator

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