Gearing up for seal season

‘Tis the season for the East Coast to receive guests, in the form of seals. It is a spectacular sight to see these animals come and rest on our local beaches, but the Marine Animal Rescue team would like to keep you safe while you enjoy these animals. Please read over the following information on how to properly view these animals, and how you can help report a sighting or injured seal during this winter season.

Typically in our Mid-Atlantic region, we see four types of seals, including harp, gray, hooded, and harbor seals. These animals are semi-aquatic, meaning they can survive for lengths of time both in water and on land. When we spot seals on land, they are usually resting after long swims, or even warming up in the sunlight. They are generally solitary animals, but will haul out (on land) in larger groups as a survival tactic. Knowing when and where these animals are hauling out is important information for the Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP) staff. If you would like to report a sighting in your area, feel free to contact the National Aquarium’s Hotline at 410-373-0083.

Along the Eastern Shore, the MARP team has first responders who are specially trained to assess an animal’s condition from a safe distance, and know how to approach the public to teach them more about these animals. The federal law states that “disturbing, harassing, or injuring seals is illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.” It is very important that the public knows not to treat the seal like a domesticated animal. This includes but is not limited to feeding, touching, or approaching the seal. When pups are weaned from their mothers they are opportunistic feeders, and if the pup is not yet weaned and human interaction occurs, the mother may abandon the pup.

The most helpful thing you can do for the animal, regardless of the animal’s condition, is to stay at least 150 feet away from the seal and call the MARP hotline at 410-373-0083. Just as dogs will often growl if uncomfortable with humans in their presence, seals will emit a deep growl and show teeth–this means that you are too close to the animal. You should return to a safe distance and ask that others do the same. 

Once our staff and first responders are onsite, the animal’s health and behaviors are evaluated.  The team is looking for any signs of injury such as entanglement, sores or abrasions, open wounds, bleeding, cataracts, dehydration, and emaciation. If injured, the animal will already have a high level of stress due to the fact that it has stranded itself on the beach. Approaching the animal could increase stress even further, making the animal feel the need to flee the area, even when injured. This decreases the chances that the MARP team will be able to help the animal. So keeping your distance is very important for the health and welfare of these animals.

The best way to tell whether an animal is healthy and merely resting, or sick and injured lies within its posture. When a seal is lying in a “banana-shaped” position, the animal is simply resting and will more than likely return to the water when it’s ready.

If a seal is lying in a “bear rug” position with its stomach and head lying on the ground, the animal is in need of further monitoring and, potentially rehabilitation.

As a parting thought, the MARP team would like to remind everyone that it is never a good idea to try to approach, feed, or touch any wild animal. Wild animals, including seals, carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans. If you find a wild animal, the best thing to do is contact the appropriate authorities for information. We recommend starting with your local Animal Control officers. These are trained experts with knowledge of local species and connections to other wildlife experts for unusual cases.

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