One of the great things about living in Western Washington is the ready access to saltwater beaches. Hiking these beaches, or finding a quiet place to sit and reflect, provides a welcome escape from the stresses of everyday life. But we are far from the only species that seeks refuge on these sandy or rocky stretches, and some of these creatures are far more sensitive to our presence than others, creatures such as Harbor Seals. They rely heavily on beaches as places to rest, and as nurseries for their young while mothers forage for food. If we are not careful, our relaxing strolls can cause these animals great distress.
Pupping season for Harbor Seals throughout the Puget Sound stretches from spring to early fall. Few animals are more adorable than young seal pups with their long whiskers and fuzzy faces. It can be difficult to resist the urge to approach a beached pup for a closer look, but keeping your distance is extremely important for a seal pup's well-being. Even a single curious onlooker may prevent the seal's mother from returning to her pup.
If you are concerned that a seal on a beach may need help, call the Northwest Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 1.800.853.1964, managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries department, the agency in charge of overseeing marine mammals. NOAA maintains a network of authorized responders who investigate calls to the stranding hotline. These experts investigate the situation and determine the appropriate course of action. Never attempt to rescue a seal yourself. Doing so may endanger both you and the seal, and may also lead to heavy fines under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act which prohibits people from harassing, disturbing or capturing marine mammals. Encourage others to stay at least 100 feet away from the seal and let them know that the proper authorities have been notified.
Seals are very specialized animals, which makes meeting their needs in a captive setting challenging. They have voracious appetites, require large pools of clean water in which to swim, and must be tested for a variety of diseases, some of which are potentially transmittable to humans. If they are not past weaning age when admitted, they must be tube-fed a rich milk replacement formula, sometimes around-the-clock. As the seals mature, they quickly gain weight transforming from small pups to large, feisty sub-adults who strain the backs of caregivers as they lift them out of their pools for daily care. Seals must also be handled with extreme caution. They are, after all, marine carnivores, and have impressive teeth.
Depending on their health and age, seals may be in care at PAWS for a few weeks or up to several months. As a young seal grows, so does his appetite. On average a weaned seal at the wildlife center eats 350 large herring, and requires the use of 12,700 gallons of water per week. In 2007, these needs alone added up to an average cost of care of $370 per week per seal. This cost does not include blood tests, X-rays and other diagnostic tests that are required during the rehabilitation process. It also does not include the countless hours that PAWS staff, volunteers and interns dedicate to caring for these very special patients.
From Willapa Bay in the south to Samish Island in the north, this scene occurred throughout 2007 with seals that were rehabilitated at PAWS Wildlife Center. You may encounter these individuals or their kin as you walk the beaches of Washington this year. If you do, be sure to give them the space they need to remain wild and free.
Upon admission, seal pups are given a thorough examination.
Pups that have been born prematurely possess a silky white coat of fur. Ordinarily, this coat is shed prior to the pup's birth.
Throughout most of their rehabilitation, seal pups are housed in large pools. They have access to Astroturf covered platforms on which they can take a rest from swimming or bask in the sun.
Pups that are too young or too ill to have full-time access to water are allowed to swim for short periods of time. They are towel-dried after their swim to ensure that they do not become hypothermic.
At release the seal pups generally weigh between 50 and 60 pounds. After having been in a contained space for several weeks or months, the endless ocean must be a very welcome sight.
It often takes a young seal a few minutes to get his or her bearings at release. Eventually, the rolling waves and the smell of salt in the air become too enticing to resist.
The seals disappear into the water at release. Although they swim away, they must eventually return to the beach to rest. Watch for them and their wild relatives whenever you visit the beach, but please appreciate them from a distance.