Star the Seal
By Ella Ashford
A Morning Stroll Turns Interesting
My mom and I were taking a morning walk downtown. We had just eaten a wonderful breakfast at The Bayview Restaurant. Stopping at Adam’s Street Park, I sat on a bench and studied a butterfly that had landed on a nearby flower. My mother was standing at the rail looking out at sea. She scanned the beach casually, but then her head jolted back and she stared intensely at one spot. “Ella,” she whispered urgently. I went over to see what had caught her eye. I walked to her side and followed her gaze. All I saw at first was a beach covered in driftwood and logs. Then to my surprise, one of the logs moved! That’s when I realized it was a very sandy seal!!!!
|A sandy seal! Photo credit: Steven Urbanc|
Marine Mammal Stranding Network
You would have to know that I live half the year in Hawaii. There, the endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal hauls up on beaches too. Whenever a Monk Seal hauls itself on a populated area of one of the main islands, marine biologists rush out and put yellow tape up that says: Protected Marine Mammal - Share the Beach! Here in PT, the Marine Science Center works to alert the volunteers of the local Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
They organize the volunteers, who then take shifts watching the stranded mammals, and educating people about them. Seals can be dangerous to people if harassed. People can unfortunately be dangerous to seals too.
In Harm's Way
As this thought raced through my mind, I got an idea. “Let’s make a sign to warn people about the seal,” I whisper to my mom. The only place we could think of to go to find a pen and cardboard so early in the morning was the Maritime Center. Within 30 minutes, my board was done. It said:
Please Do Not Disturb the Seal!!!
In the meantime, my mom had called the Port Townsend Marine Science Center to alert the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
Wild Animals and People
I have been working with injured animals for a long time. When I grow up, I want to work as an animal rehabilitator. So as you can guess, I love animals. But even with my experience, I always call professionals to help. And today, I was reminded why: As we rounded the corner to the beach, I saw a woman and her two young daughters standing within five feet of the seal! The mother of the two girls was holding a camera taking pictures of her girls next to the seal. I called out to the mom:
“Seals can be dangerous and you shouldn’t be so close!” The woman looked up, startled! “Oh,” She replied, “I didn’t think of that! When we went down to collect sea glass, we didn’t see him. Then my four year old daughter almost sat on him, thinking he was a log.”
Since the Marine Science Center had not arrived yet, my mom called the City Hall to see if they had any yellow tape that kept people back. The City Hall contacted the Port Townsend Police Department and asked them to help. In the meantime, people passing by asked a lot of questions: “Why doesn’t it have any spots?” “Is it lost?” “Is it dead?” As we tried to look up answers, a police car pulled into the parking lot.
Unfortunately, because the police put up yellow tape that said, “Crime Scene – Do Not Cross,” even more people came! Rumors circulated that someone had shot the seal or that the seal had bit a girl! You would not believe the stories we heard!
After securing the perimeter, my mom and I hung the sign I made. We decided to stick around until we heard from the Marine Science Center. I was glad we did, because soon after, we faced another problem: As the time was nearing nine o’clock, the town was getting busier. The beach that the seal had pulled up onto was a popular sea glass collecting and dog walking area! The problem was that the seal had pulled up right next to a side trail that leads down to the beach. I stopped people left and right explaining why they couldn’t go onto the beach. One time, I even had to interrupt a man’s phone conversation. A moment later and he would’ve been standing on the seals head. I don’t think that would have gone well with the seal…Throughout the week, because the seal hauled up in a “downtown area,” there were lots of people taking photos! I sure wish I had some of those great shots from those long lenses!!!
Before the volunteers arrived, I was researching seals of Puget Sound on the internet using my mom’s Iphone. We found that the most common seals around here were called Harbor Seals. This seal was about the same size as an adult male Harbor Seal, which is about five feet. The only difference I could see was that it had no spots as Harbor Seals usually do.
I looked closely at the seal and saw that the skin and fur looked like it was peeling off. “The seal must be molting” I said. I had just read a Wikipedia article about molting seals. Molting is where a seal sheds its fur and skin. The process can take four to five weeks and the seal is especially vulnerable during this time.
Shortly after that a volunteer from the Marine Science Center came. We put up the Marine Mammal Protection Agency’s yellow tape and took down the crime scene tape. She measured and examined the seal, then called the expert over the phone. When she got off the phone, she said: “They think he is a young male Elephant Seal, molting. The dark whiskers and big eyes are the giveaway. Harbor Seals have light whiskers. He is approximately five feet long and 300 pounds.”
Shortly afterwards, another volunteer named Roger arrived. By then, I had decided to stay the entire day. I felt that it was my responsibility. Roger came by to “seal sit” and I liked him at first sight.
We talked to people about the seal that whole day and even if I didn’t know it at that time, I would be “seal sitting” every day for the next 14 days.
Sometimes it was hard getting people to listen to me. Not all people wanted to listen to a kid. Later on, when I got an orange vest from the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, it was easier. It made people treat me like I was a professional.
4-H PT STEM Club
I already had leadership roles through 4-H. In my 4-H PT STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Club, I begin every meeting by pledging to serve my community. This “seal sitting” turned out to be a very natural role for me to serve Port Townsend in. I started thinking about ways to engage kids and adults. One of the fun projects was “Story Time with Star.” I made a reading nook so that kids could read stories to the seal while it swam nearby in the water or rested near the shore. It gave kids something quiet to do while watching the seal. I had a lot of wonderful books to share about sea animals from Hawaii. One story was even about a Monk Seal, and seal sitters!
The Days Flew By
The days flew by after that first day. I was there every day and a few nights too. The community became so attached to the seal we even named him. His name is Star. I felt like the name fit, he was the “star” of Port Townsend, that’s for sure. Star and I even got our names in the newspaper. It felt like the whole City of Port Townsend saw him at least once. Some citizens even became daily visitors to make sure he was okay. My biggest worry when I was away was that something would happen to him. He had an unexplainable desire to “window shop” downtown!
Emergency Action Plan!
One day my brother Nathaniel and I were at a wood working class at the Maritime Center. Our class had just ended when my other brother Everest came running up. “Ella, Emergency! Emergency! The seal needs you!!!” my brother shouts. That’s all the information I needed! I began running in the direction of the seal. I had thought the seal was at Adam’s Street Park but he wasn’t there! Where could he be I wondered? Then I remembered that he sometimes goes to a beach near a coffee shop called Better Living Through Coffee.
Before the thought had fully formed, I was of running as fast as could. Millions of horrible thoughts raced through my brain. A few days before, Star had gone to the beach near Better Living Through Coffee’s and even pulled up on the side walk. What if he climbed further and got run over by a car? When I got there, I tried to make sense of what I saw. My Mom and some volunteers were standing in a crescent shape holding old doors as a barricade. They were facing the water and trying to corral something back to the beach. Suddenly, I understood. The seal had made it all the way to Water Street! And, it was trying to cross over! The volunteers were following the newest NOAA protocol and “crowd boarding” him back to the water. I couldn’t believe it! The volunteers were trying to corral a three hundred pound seal back to the water!!! I badly wanted to help the volunteers. I knew I couldn’t help them corral him. There had to be something a 12 year old could do. Then I saw a volunteer trying to keep the crowd back and corral the seal at the same time. Things were getting crazy. I grabbed the yellow tape and pulled it back so the volunteers had room. Star finally gave up and reluctantly inched his way back towards the sea. A cheer erupted from the crowds when he finally entered the water!
Goodbye Star – I Will Miss You…
Star eventually swam back to the Adam’s Street Park Beach. He tucked up under Nifty Fifty's restaurant again. After a couple of days of rest, Star left. I was sad and happy at the same time. I was happy because Port Townsend wasn’t the best place for him. Star had endured stinky cigarette smoke, grimy engine oils, noisy generators, toxic herbicides, AND a bunch of bossy girls pushing him back into the water (that last insult must have been the worst for a male elephant seal!) But, I was sad because I had developed a bond with him. Releasing a wild animal is the hardest part of being a Wild Animal Rehabilitator. I will always remember the experience “Star the Seal” gave me. Star was amazing because he drew everyone in, no matter their differences. I think he truly found a home in the heart of Port Townsend.
I would like to thank all the businesses that helped support the Port Townsend Marine Science Center “seal sitters.” : Pizza Factory, Elevated Ice Cream, Nifty Fifty, Better Living Through Coffee, Jordini's, Fins, Waterfront Pizza, The Clothes Horse, Dons Pharmacy, Boiler Room, and the Maritime Center. And a special thanks to the Community of Port Townsend!!!!
Photos courtesy of Gabriella Ashford and Lucy LaRosa
A word from the PTMSC Marine Mammal Stranding Network:
A word from the PTMSC Marine Mammal Stranding Network:
All marine mammals are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. NOAA advises people to stay 100 yards away, if possible, and do not touch, handle, or feed marine mammals.
Stranded marine mammals in or around Port Townsend should be reported to
PTMSC MMSN at
360-385-5582 ext. 103