Sunday, June 1, 2014

Did somebody say seal pups?

PTMSC Marine Mammal Stranding Network

Summer Update

We received our first seal pup call of the season a few days ago, and several  more since. 
Around here, harbor seals usually have their pups between June and August, but sometimes procrastinate into October. Now that the season has officially kicked off, it's time for a few friendly reminders of what to do (and what not to do) when you see a seal pup.

When you see a sleeping seal pup on the beach (like the one pictured above) you might be tempted to cuddle with him, but you shouldn't. Nor should you pick him up, feed him, or sit nearby and count his shaky breaths. Here's why:

Seal pups need time to rest. A mother harbor seal will leave her pup on the beach to sleep and warm up. Meanwhile, mama seal is out foraging nearby, trying to fill up so she can give her pup the nutrients he needs. The young pup needs this time to sleep, and won't get it if we oooo and ahhh and pace back and forth. Similarly, the mother needs time to eat, but won't get it if she's worried that we're endangering her pup. Mother seals are very wary of people and won't come to get the pup until everybody clears the area (often, this is after dark). This is why we ask people to stay back 100 yards and require pups to be monitored for 24-48 hours before any action is taken. 
A pup's best chance of survival is with its mother.

You should never pick up or move a seal pup. The mother will be looking for him where she left him. The pup may move around a bit as the tide comes in or goes out, but they'll be able to reunite by calling to each other. Just like we can find our family member in a crowd by the sound of their voice, seals can do the same. In some cases, it is necessary to relocate a seal pup, but this is a careful decision made by our Principal Investigator in communication with the Regional Coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and carried out by trained responders.

Sometimes we see a seal pup that is very thin. Even then, you should not feed it. Young pups nurse on their mother's milk and cannot digest solid food. Older pups and yearlings are able to hunt for themselves. 

Are you curious why you shouldn't count a seal pup's breaths? The reason for this one has nothing to do with the seal's well-being and everything to do with your own. We often get panicked reports from people who are concerned a seal pup is dying because it's 'barely breathing' or 'taking shaky breaths'. It can be very stressful for the person watching. However, seals are conscious breathers (whereas we are voluntary). This means that they have to think about every breath they take, and it's not as often or smooth as we breathe. In a nutshell, this is perfectly normal seal behavior, and it's perfectly normal for it to freak us out until we know better. Conscious breathing makes sense, though, when you consider that these are marine mammals that spend a good chunk of their life underwater.   

If the reasons above aren't enough to leave the seal pup be, I should also mention that it's illegal to harass a marine mammal. Harassment includes touching, feeding, or disturbing the animal. 

So what CAN you do?

  1. Tell other people why they shouldn't cuddle, move, or feed a seal pup, or count its shaky breaths.
  2. Help keep people and dogs a safe distance away. Federal guidelines recommend 100 yards back to keep from disturbing the animal.
  3. Leash your pup. Dogs are often much better at spotting seal pups than people, and sometimes harass the animal, or worse. The very saddest call I've responded to involved a seal pup who had been attacked by off-leash dogs. 
  4. Call us, we're here to help! We rely on reports from concerned citizens. 
PTMSC Marine Mammal Stranding Network
(360) 385-5582 ext. 103
Put this number in your phone. Someday you may be very glad you did.

A Few Reminders

Call the stranding network if...
  • A whale, dolphin, or porpoise is out of water. Please call us IMMEDIATELY.
  • You find a marine mammal that is dead, injured, or in a bad place. Photos are extremely helpful.
  • You find a marine mammal and aren't sure what to do.

Seals and sea lions commonly use shoreline habitat. This is natural behavior; please remember to 

Share the Shore!


Your local seal savers

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