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Squid lures seal pups and fishermen to area piers

Each evening across South Puget Sound, piers are packed with diehard souls who brave frigid temperatures after dark, clutching fishing poles, lanterns and flashlights. Casting eerie lightbeams into the black water, these fishermen hope to attract migrating squid, who feed mainly at night and are drawn to the shimmering light and illuminated “jigs” (learn more about squid here).

The most common species is “market squid” (Loligo opalescens) which is found in Washington inland waters year-round, but more abundant during the cold late fall months through February. Measuring about 8”, these squid are called calamari when served in restaurants. However, not only are they a taste delight for diners, they are also a favorite delicacy of young harbor seal pups.

One such pup, nicknamed Squidoo (shown at left), prompted a call to Seal Sitters’ hotline yesterday. The alert pup was resting at the water’s edge below the entry to the Seacrest fishing pier. When our first responder Lynn arrived, the rising tide had begun sloshing at his rear flippers and, about 20 minutes later, he swam off into Elliott Bay.

Unfortunately, fishing piers can pose dangers for seals of all ages. Hungry seals are also attracted to light and fishing lures, especially those with clinging 8-armed squid or baited with small fish. A swallowed lure is almost always fatal and discarded monofilament line can be equally hazardous - always dispose of fishing gear responsibly! We do hope Squidoo continues to forage safely around the pier and pack on a thick layer of blubber for warmth in the cold, challenging months ahead.

Though hardly robust, Squidoo was certainly on the plump side compared to the skinny pups we have monitored this very strange seal pup season. Seal Sitters MMSN has not had a response to a live pup onshore since October 27th. Typically, October is a very busy month for responders and volunteers who look after a myriad of pups in all sizes and conditions. Not so this season with fewer pups and more deaths. Squidoo was a welcome sight and long overdue.

Researchers identify killer virus attacking Pacific sea stars

A team of both American and Canadian researchers have finally identified a deadly virus which has wiped out millions of sea stars along the Pacific Coast. Known as “sea star wasting disease”, the virus causes limbs to waste away, fall off and essentially causes the animal to melt to a slimy pile of jelly. Once-healthy sea star populations have virtually vanished from many areas in Puget Sound, including West Seattle’s once vibrant tide pools at Constellation Beach. Pier uprights, once covered in brightly colored sea stars, are now bare. Local researchers, including those at the Seattle Aquarium, have been highly involved in the urgent quest to find the killer before entire populations vanish. Area beach naturalists have been providing valuable data and sea star counts at low tides. Seal Sitters’ volunteer Buzz Shaw, retired Seattle Aquarium zoologist and now a beach naturalist, comments that it is interesting that he chose the past few years to do his sea star and invertebrate counts at Constellation, “never dreaming of the value of the baseline.”

Yesterday, the research team released their findings in a scientific paper you can read here. For a layman’s explanation of the findings, read the Smithsonian article here.

For additional in-depth information, watch the PBS NewsHour/Earthfix segment on wasting disease, featuring underwater video by West Seattle diver and environmental advocate Laura James.

Rehabbed Canadian seal pup visits South Puget Sound

On Wednesday afternoon, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Dyanna Lambourn responded to a report of a harbor seal pup onshore at a sand spit in a far corner of Henderson Bay. As she approached the beach underneath a bridge, she saw the pup resting about 35 yards from a smoldering beach fire. Three young men who had been drinking beer quickly left the scene, but it does not appear that they harmed the seal.

Dyanna noticed the pup had a 4-digit tag on the left rear flipper, indicating a stint at a rehab facility. In Washington State, rehabilitated pinnipeds have a 5-digit tag. She taped off the area with yellow Protected Marine Mammal tape, posted informational signs and observed behavior at length before leaving the somewhat secluded location, popular with a “party” crowd. Early the next morning, the pup was back on the beach.

After contacting the Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia, it was determined that the pup had indeed been rehabbed at their facility - one of 160 pups given a second chance there this year. This pup, nicknamed Lithium, was admitted on July 4th, having been rescued from Mayne Island on Horton Bay. Estimated at only 3-5 days old with the umbilicus still attached and no attending mom, the tiny female pup weighed only 8.4 kg with some superficial wounds around her face and head (photo at left on admittance). On August 14th, weighing a respectable 21.2 kg, Lithium was released at Iona Beach in Richmond, BC, a suburb of Vancouver.

Three months later, far away in Washington, WDFW monitored Lithium’s activities in South Puget Sound for 5 straight days. Lithium, wary of human presence, was observed coming and going from the beach at different times - a good sign. The spit is the only place to haul out and rest in that area when there are extreme high tides, such as last weekend. It is located in Burley Lagoon, a shallow estuary with lots of small bait fish, cutthroat trout and chum salmon returning this time of year. Thankfully, there has not been much boat traffic or gillnet fishing of late. Other seals have been observed routinely resting on the oyster floats inside the lagoon in the early morning or late afternoon. The pup is in fair body condition, common to many struggling weaned pups during late fall and winter months. We hope our visitor from north of the border packs on some much-needed pounds. Lithium was last sighted on Sunday afternoon.

A recent study by SeaDoc Society of satellite-tagged harbor seal pups revealed that rehabbed pups travel much farther in search of food than wild-weaned pups - in fact, three times as far and wide. This would only contribute even more to Lithium’s low body weight as she expends more calories traveling greater distances. Seals usually stay within a 5-mile radius their entire lives. If you happen to see a tagged animal, please inform your local marine mammal stranding network of the location (map with networks contact info here). This information is extremely valuable in helping biologists determine success rates of rehabbed seals.

Strange seal pup season continues in West Seattle

The 2014 harbor seal pupping season in West Seattle has proven to be a rocky one. Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network’s (SSMMSN) first responders have totaled up 85 responses since lanugo pup Luigi was found on June 9th in the tideline on the busiest stretch of Alki Beach - across from the Bathhouse. Those responses included 24 positively identified pups and 23 dead ones (5 of whom died on the beach or in transport to PAWS Wildlife Center). This almost 50% mortality is the highest rate since volunteer David Hutchinson began keeping detailed response stats in 2011.

*Please note: In the wild harbor seal population, 50% mortality is considered normal for seal pups in their first year. In West Seattle, however, we have not recorded such a high rate in prior years.

A total of 112 responses have been made by SSMMSN first responders to date this year.

• 200 responses
• 70% of responses during pupping season (start date is the arrival of first newborn or weaned pup in West Seattle)
• 90% of all responses are to harbor seal pups

We haven’t had a pup reported onshore this past week, but a few have been sighted in Elliott Bay. The tribal gill nets, stretched out at great lengths across the Bay and Duwamish River, are always a safety concern for unwitting pups who can become entangled and drown. Seal Sitters rescued and freed one such pup a few years ago.

During turbulent weather, harbor seal pups often ride out storms by bottom resting - sleeping on the sea floor and rising every 20-30 minutes to take a breath. Once the weather calms down, pups often need to seek additional rest and, especially, warmth on shore. These thinner, weaned pups have no thick coat of blubber for insulation and energy.

Now that this most recent wind and rain storm has moved through the area, Seal Sitters volunteers (like JoDean at left) are standing by anxiously to help out -rain or shine - should a pup need protection on the beach.

Weekly pupdate: two seal pups onshore

This past week saw yet another two seal pups resting in West Seattle. On Sunday morning around 9am, a beach walker discovered and reported seal pup Libra (at right) at the base of Constellation Park’s sea wall. Covered in sea lettuce, the pup apparently hauled out at a very high tide. Libra rested until shortly after noon before making the trek across the now-exposed beach back to the Sound.

On Tuesday at Jack Block Park, seal pup Drifter was spotted by one of our first responders during a routine check of the beaches. Eilene noticed a small, white torpedo shape alongside some driftwood at the far end of the public area. Sure enough, a seal pup was zonked out there, oblivious and at risk on a beach notorious for off-leash dogs. The beach was quickly closed off and Seal Sitters’ scheduler for the day was contacted. Volunteers looked after Drifter in 2-hour shifts until he/she returned to Elliott Bay around 5pm.

Seal pup loss a reminder how vulnerable weaned pups are

“Bellissima!” the dark-haired woman exclaimed as she peered through the scope from behind the Protected Marine Mammal tape. Though the young couple visiting from Italy didn’t speak a word of English, no translation was needed as they oozed joy from the surprise sight of a seal pup snoozing below them.

“Beautiful” indeed was Pumpkin, who had unexpectedly come ashore during daylight hours on Wednesday, after having already spent a number of hours resting overnight.

Thin but alert, she slept throughout the day and crept higher up on the sand as the tide slowly moved in. Finally, in the afternoon a series of waves swept over Pumpkin and she swam off into the Sound, returning a short time later. She rested until early evening before swimming off once again and Seal Sitters volunteers headed home, but responders continued to monitor the area. Checking the closed beach at 8:45pm, she was still gone. However, Pumpkin was back again before 6:30am Thursday and was lethargic throughout the morning.

This increased need to be ashore was not a good sign for a thin, weaned pup - all of whom are struggling mightily this time of year. With dwindling fat stores for energy and warmth, each day is a battle between life and death. Sadly, around 1pm yesterday, this tiny white pup lost that battle and died at the water’s edge, trying to return to Puget Sound.

Heartfelt thanks to all of the volunteers who invested many hours to give Pumpkin the best chance we could to rest, warm up and try to gain strength, free from harassment and stress. And special thanks to the first responders who monitored the beach at Duwamish Head each night, closing the beach to protect her and removing the tape barrier at dawn when she was gone.

The passing of every seal pup - and Seal Sitters MMSN has had more than our quota of death this pupping season - is a constant reminder how terribly vulnerable these small marine mammals are, with 50% mortality their first year. Please, Share the Shore with wildlife - you might very well save a life.

Long days and lots of seal pups stretch volunteers thin

The past days have seen a whirlwind of seal pup activity in West Seattle. On Tuesday, Seal Sitters responded to a total of 5 resting pups, all in far-flung locations - from the southernmost neighborhood of our boundary to the northern point.

Four of those pups were terribly thin and desperately needed sanctuary on shore. Volunteers worked in shifts from early morning until dark protecting them. Seal pup Autumn at Lincoln Park and seal pup Mahina (Hawaiian for “moon”) near Cormorant Cove returned to the water overnight.

Seal pup Surfer (photo above) tried to rest in a spot just below rowdy ferry commuters who talked loudly and took photos. Our responder kept watch over Surfer, intercepting 4 beach walkers with off-leash dogs. Each person was strolling along the sand with mobile device earbuds firmly implanted, oblivious to their surroundings and their dogs running far ahead of them. Barely able to get their attention before it was too late, several dogs came within 15-20 feet of the pup. The last, a large white dog, came even closer before the owner restrained the excited animal - and Surfer was scared back into the water, wasting precious calories.

Seal pup Pumpkin (right) has continued to haul out each night at the same small beach, but yesterday surprised us with a daytime visit. We were finally able to get a decent health assessment and i.d. photos of the elusive pup. She has either changed her foraging patterns, but based on her thin condition, likely needs more time ashore to build up enough strength to forage.

Seal pup Seacil still hangs out on the rocky shoreline along Elliott Bay each day and night, in between foraging trips for tiny bait fish.

Over the past week, Seal Sitters volunteers have educated many, many hundreds of people about harbor seal behavior and our fragile marine environment thanks to these tiny ambassadors who grace us with their presence.

Seal pup entertains as volunteers educate the public

seacil-splash-wmA seal pup nicknamed Seacil has been charming passersby and volunteers for the past few days along the shore of Elliott Bay. The pup periodically snacks on what appears to be a bounty of tiny fish just offshore and then returns to rest on craggy rocks that comprise the seawall - usually just after high tide. Trying to snooze at the water’s edge is not always uneventful, however. Shown here, Seacil has hauled out at high tide, only to be engulfed in a series of waves from a freighter headed out into Puget Sound from the Port of Seattle. Undaunted, the pup held fast and then nonchalantly settled in for a very long nap. It’s hard to imagine complaining about a lumpy mattress when you watch pups trying to find a comfy spot to sleep on jagged rocks!

With several days of beautiful weather, Seal Sitters had an opportunity to educate many hundreds of people walking and biking the Alki Trail. Volunteers cheerily spread some blubber-love and distributed stickers to fascinated children. Finally, we have a vibrant pup to protect after such a dreary start to our season in West Seattle.

On Saturday morning, a second pup named Kazoo (at left) rested briefly on the same stretch of rocks along with Seacil. It was our first sighting of both pups.

Another highlight to the week was continuing to ensure that our little ghost of a pup, Pumpkin, is safe at night. She comes ashore after dark each evening, returning before first light. We have only seen the tiny white pup a few times, but always see her tracks in the sand very early each morning. Access to the small beach is closed off each night at dark and the tape is removed the next morning, after checking to make sure she has returned to the Sound.

Adult female seal chooses dangerous location to rest

As of Friday, a struggling adult female harbor seal continued to choose the ever-perilous Don Armeni boat launch as her resting place. Rising tempers from a few unenlightened and hostile fishermen added to the stress of Seal Sitters MMSN volunteers who attempted to keep her safe under the guidelines of the Marine Mammal Protection Act - and keep the peace with boaters at the sometimes busy ramp. We want to emphasize that the vast majority of fishermen who used Don Armeni during the days that Jellybean sought refuge there were generous and accommodating to her presence. However, it only takes an irate few to turn a difficult situation into a dangerous one for a compromised seal.

Volunteers like Lars and Ralph (shown at left), allowed the thin, postpartum seal to get some much needed shut-eye on the one closed dock. The opposite dock and lanes were wide open for boaters to launch and retrieve and rarely was there more than a few minute wait to do so.

Throughout the day on Thursday and Friday morning, we explained to boaters that a capture plan was being put into effect for the ailing seal. It was determined that for the safety of the seal, she would be captured, taken to a quiet location and given a health assessment. If her health was deemed poor, she would be taken to rehab. If her ailment was not serious, she would be given topical antibiotics or other treatment and released at a quieter, much safer location.

On Friday afternoon, a team from WDFW Marine Mammal Investigations along with two marine mammal vets assembled at the launch. Twice, attempts were made, but without success. A difficult logistical challenge at best with her tail half-draped over the edge of the dock, the seal was able to escape from the landing net. The positive outcome of this is that she seems strong enough to avoid capture, meaning she is probably healthy enough not to be a rehab candidate. Secondly, it should make her more wary to use a public boat launch as a resting place and realize that not all people have her best interests at heart. We hope she finds a more secure place in our area where we can help her rest and build up strength.

Seal Sitters volunteers have been monitoring the boat ramp area and have seen her close by. However, with all the boating activity of the sunny weekend and folks hanging out on the docks, she appears to be wise enough to keep a distance. We will continue to keep an eye out for her. Should you see a seal anywhere on shore, please call our dedicated hotline immediately: 206-905-SEAL (7325).

Thanks to all the volunteers who put in long (and sometimes trying) hours and kept Jellybean safe. You are awesome! And many thanks to NOAA’s Northwest MMSN stranding coordinator Kristin Wilkinson and to the capture team: WDFW’s Dyanna Lambourn, Erin D’agnese, Seattle Aquarium veterinarian Lesanna Lahner and veterinarian Jeanne Ross.

Volunteers protect three seals onshore yesterday

Yesterday was a busy one for Seal Sitters’ first responders and volunteers as we looked over three harbor seals trying to rest along the shoreline. First up at 5am was the discovery of a little pup snoozing on a small pocket beach notorious for early morning dogs. Our responder blocked off access to ensure the pup’s safety until he (or she) flop-hopped back to the Sound around 6:15. This pup (and possibly another) seems to be using this same beach under cover of night, returning to the water about the same time early each morning before sunrise - this according to tracks left in the sand leading down to the water’s edge. Yesterday morning was the first good look we’ve had of this very sly and mysterious pup, nicknamed Pumpkin, who was thin but moved without hesitation across the beach in search of a seafood breakfast.

Around noon, the hotline received a call about a harbor seal “pup” at West Seattle’s busy boat ramp. It was, however, the same thin adult female who has been hauling out on the docks off and on over the past few days. Seal Sitters has been monitoring the health of this animal who has an infected wound on her mouth and appears to be battling some kind of respiratory issues. Her ragged fur indicates she is probably just about to begin a taxing molt of her coat to grow a new, sleek one before winter. During molts, seals spend more and more time resting out of the water and less time foraging.

Launching and retrieving boaters have been very cooperative in letting her rest undisturbed. Nicknamed Jellybean, she is shown here enjoying the warm sun and checking out the boating activity on the opposite dock. In conversations with the fishermen, we have learned that fish stocks seem to be pretty bleak right now. The few fish that are being caught have empty bellies - with none of the bait or “forage” fish that harbor seal pups in particular favor. However, coho salmon which are returning to spawn do not usually forage on their journey, so an empty stomach would not necessarily indicate a lack of bait fish. But fishermen do report that there have not been many herring balls in our area - perhaps the underlying reason we are seeing so many struggling and terribly thin pups again this year - and higher than normal mortality rates for West Seattle.

Jellybean returned to Elliott Bay about 6:30pm and several pups were observed swimming nearby in the pastel blue and pink water. Perhaps one of those pups was the same one who unsuccessfully tried to haul out on the dock next to Jellybean the day before. Volunteers lingered to make sure the adult didn’t return. As the sun dipped behind Admiral hill, California sea lions cruised by close to shore against a backdrop of Seattle’s shimmering gold skyline - a stunning Pacific Northwest evening.

Very late in the afternoon, we responded to a report of a yet another seal pup resting on a beach on the west side. The small, cholcoate-colored pup was protected by volunteers until dark when the high tide crept in to close off access.

Thanks to our first responders and the many volunteers who enjoyed a day of sunshine, laughter and camaraderie, learning and, most importantly, the satisfaction of knowing they helped animals in need.

Woodstock love-in lifts volunteers' spirits

Seal Sitters’ volunteer and scientific advisor Buzz Shaw was out for a walk early this morning along the shores of Elliott Bay. He noticed a seal pup nestled halfway up the jagged rocks along the seawall and gave the hotline a call. First responder Lynn met him at the location.

The pup had apparently come up at the early morning high tide. Because of the cool, drizzly weather there were few pedestrians out and about. Eventually, however, it was necessary to set a tape perimeter to keep the several dozen curious people from standing too close, disturbing him and potentially causing a fall and injury. Health assessment photos taken with a long telephoto lens revealed some scrapes and nicks, but nothing significant that we could see - other than being much too thin, always a concern with often dire consequences. An image which captured a wide yawn revealed a full rack of teeth, indicating he (or she) was recently weaned.

The pup, nicknamed Woodstock by young SS volunteer Adrienne from Snoqualmie, was thin but alert to his surroundings. Around 1:45, Woodstock decided it was time to make his move back to the Sound rather than wait several more hours for the returning tide to reach his perch. He turned and promptly tumbled into a crevice behind a large rock (right). After a couple of attempts to climb over and around the barnacle-covered rocks, he managed to find his way out.

Seemingly uninjured, Woodstock quickly slid off into the still, gray water. Rain-doused volunteers were relieved to observe him actively splashing around offshore with another seal pup - hopefully, both foraging for the small fish that frequent the cove.

It was a lovely day with rainbows and soft rain, barking sea lions, cormorants and two beautiful little pups. Thanks to everyone for giving Woodstock some peace and love.
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