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Finally! A pup comes ashore in West Seattle

Seal Sitters first responder was shocked to see an incoming call from hotline operator Julia this morning. Could we actually have a pup on shore after such a long drought in responses? Yes, indeed. Someone reported a seal on the public access beach at Jack Block Park.

Our responder arrived minutes after the phone call and found the snoozing pup about 6 feet above the tide line.

Thankfully, no one was on the beach - or seemingly even in the park on this chilly and foggy day. A quick perimeter was set with sandwich boards and yellow tape on the sidewalk just above the resting pup. The small beach entrance was taped off as well (thanks to the quick-thinking soul who had set a construction barricade there).

Soon afterwards, the pup started to stir and make the slow trek to Elliott Bay. After slipping into the gray, still waters, the pup was seen offshore for a short time, but then disappeared. After the materials had been removed from the area, our responder talked with 12-year-old Sophia about the pup she had just missed seeing. After looking at photos, she christened him/her Clover.

Clover was on the thin side, but seemed reasonably healthy for a weaner headed into winter. We’ll be on the lookout for Clover. If you see a pup onshore, make sure to give the hotline a call at 206-905-SEAL (7325).

This past week other seals have been seen resting on offshore platforms, so we do seem to have seals in the area. Perhpas they are just finding safer places to haul out this season.

Mystery season continues: trick or treat for harbor seal pups?

September and October, the usual months in South Puget Sound when newly weaned harbor seal pups strike out on their own, have proven to be spooky for a number of marine mammal stranding networks. Responses to weaned pups are way down - and in typically seal-busy areas like West Seattle, First Responders have been essentially idle. However, Seal Sitters volunteers faithfully continue to enter time on our online calendar and wonder when their phone will ring, hoping to help protect a seal pup.

Seal Sitters’ hotline (206-905-SEAL) has been eerily silent, with phone reports down drastically. Last October, hotline operators fielded 54 calls, 24 of which were out-of-area calls. Seal Sitters routinely receives calls from other regions of Puget Sound which we forward on to the appropriate network. In October of 2015, we have handled only 7 calls, including 3 out-of-area.

In September and October of 2014, Seal Sitters responded to 60 pinnipeds - seals and sea lions, but by far the vast majority were seal pups. This year for the two month period, we have a combined total of only 14, mostly to dead newborn animals early in the season. The average September responses for the previous 4 years is 36. The average for October for the previous 4 years is 42. These numbers include pinnipeds, dead or alive.

Scratching our heads over the lack of pups resting on shore or even seen swimming around the area, Seal Sitters’ Lead Investigator reached out to other stranding networks, curious if they were experiencing a similarly slow season. Our informal poll has indicated that response numbers are down region-wide and other network coordinators are perplexed as well. Port Townsend, Edmonds and Snohomish/King Counties have also had very few responses this year (pupping season varies across Puget Sound - view a pupping season map here).

So, what does this all mean? According to our consulting marine mammal biologist, it does not necessarily indicate dire straits for seal pups. Area rookeries had normal birth numbers and there was no dramatic increase in newborn mortality. The one exception has been an unusual and extensive coyote predation of seal pups at a historic South Puget Sound island haulout (shown at right, a well-fed coyote waits patiently for his next meal).

Perhaps pups are healthy enough this season that they don’t have to come ashore on busy beaches. Instead, they have the strength to swim on and find quieter locations to rest. The good news is we are not having high numbers of emaciated pups on shore in West Seattle like the past few seasons.

On the flip side, the mammal-eating transient orcas have been visiting Puget Sound more frequently this year. Some theorize that they could have had some impact on pup populations. Weaker pups are easy prey for killer whales.

Is climate change affecting marine life and foraging habits? Undoubtedly. Are forage fish numbers dwindling? Certainly. Watch a video here about the importance of forage fish to marine mammals, salmon and other species. Please check back as we continue our inquiry with marine mammal biologists and scientists to further investigate possible root causes of such a haunting season.

Seal pup Little Dipper returned to the wilds of Puget Sound

Seal Sitters is thrilled to report that harbor seal pup Little Dipper, rescued by authorized First Responders from a Lincoln Park beach in late June, has been released back home to Puget Sound. The newborn, full-term harbor seal pup had been abandoned by his mom - most likely due to human activity and the presence of 4 off-leash dogs on the beach in the park.

Little Dipper’s stint of rehabilitation at PAWS Wildlife Center (intake exam photo at left) was a bit longer than a typical two-month duration because he was slow to pack on weight. A newborn seal pup in rehab must be taught to eat whole fish since they are not able to learn from other seals in the wild. When finally released on October 9th, he weighed over 30 kgs (66+ lbs) - a true blubberball! The pup weighed only about 18 lbs when taken in for stabilization and treatment.

Little Dipper, now sporting a brightly-colored rehab tag on his rear flipper, still faces big challenges in the wild. The 50% chance odds of survival his first year are not statistically reduced. However, thanks to a daily high-caloric intake, he has a thick layer of blubber fat to keep him warm in the cold waters and to provide energy to sustain him while learning to hunt on his own.

Little Dipper was released, along with another rehabilitated seal pup, near a harbor seal haulout. The photo at right shows Little Dipper emerging from his kennel on the boat transom, seconds before plunging into the water and swimming off. We so hope that these two young pups navigate the waters successfully and thrive together in the vast expanse of Puget Sound - and find safety when resting onshore.

Seal Sitters MMSN extends heartfelt thanks to the dedicated staff at PAWS for giving Little Dipper a second chance at life and generously providing photos to share with volunteers and the public.

If you see a seal pup (or any marine mammal) with a tag and are able to get the number thru binoculars or with a telephoto lens at a distance, please forward the location information and photos to Seal Sitters.

Two seal pups in as many days for Seal Sitters

On Tuesday, Seal Sitters received a call that a harbor seal pup was at the Don Armeni public boat launch, surrounded by people - illegally touching and petting him. The pup managed to escape back into Elliott Bay before our responder arrived and the crowd had dispersed.

The following afternoon, a tiny seal pup came ashore at that same dangerous location, busy with frequent boat and trailer traffic - in addition to trucks rumbling through the parking lot and busses unloading tourists to take photos of the Seattle skyline. We believe he is probably the same pup that had been harassed the day before. Pups are attracted to this location because of the small fish fry that thrive underneath docks and piers - and because fishermen often dump their bait after a long day of fishing. A pup trying to rest on any public launch is extremely vulnerable to being run over and killed, serious injury from off-leash dogs and harassment from people. All marine mammals are protected from harassment by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Washington State Law.

The pup, nicknamed Pup Francis (shown above snoozing in the sun near the tide line), rested under the protection of Seal Sitters volunteers and returned to the water after several hours, only to come ashore at the ramp again later in the day for a short time. Volunteers in shifts educated the public and, thankfully, boaters were very supportive of our attempts to give him a bit of sanctuary onshore in a difficult situation. One boater even remarked that “he needs the ramp more than we do” and was more than happy to use an alternative ramp for launching.

Like most recently weaned seal pups, Pup Francis was a bit thinner than we like to see. We hope he packs on some blubber for the upcoming cold months and finds a safer haulout.

Yesterday afternoon, Seal Sitters responded to another pup (shown at left) resting against a moss-covered rock on a very small piece of pebbled Elliott Bay beach. New volunteer Jenny was thrilled to finally be given the opportunity to protect a seal pup, after a very slow start to our West Seattle pupping season. She nicknamed the spotted and alert pup Moss.

Volunteers taped off a small area of the sidewalk on the sea wall above the pup, still allowing plenty of room for passersby and cyclists. Distributing stickers to kids and informational handouts, they spoke with quite a few people about the need for seal pups to rest and warm up. A curious seagull pecked at Moss, wondering if the sleeping pup was alive - and barely escaped the snapping jaws of the startled pup.

The incoming tide was soon lapping at his (or her) rear flippers. Not long after, a big swell rushed over Moss who then swam off into the gray waters. Volunteers waited to make sure he didn’t appear further down the beach and then removed all materials from the site.

Please call Seal Sitters’ hotline @ 206-905-SEAL (7325) if you see a seal (or sea lion) onshore. Keep people and dogs well away until our first responder can arrive on the scene. Please note that Seal Sitters responds to reports of all marine mammals, dead or alive.

Strange bedfellows share the shore

Every fall, salmon migrating through the waters of Puget Sound lure anglers of all ages and skills to the beaches of Lincoln Park. Silhouetted against both the dawn and evening light, fishermen can be seen lined up along the shoreline trying to land a fat Pink or Coho.

Somewhat surprisingly, this past week a sleek, silvery harbor seal pup has been occasionally wriggling onto the pebbled beach to rest among the fishermen. This little pup isn’t interested in big salmon. Instead, he forages on the many species of tiny fish found among the intertidal eelgrass and seasonal kelp beds, a fertile marine habitat. For the most part, the fishermen have accommodated his presence and granted him space. The pup catches some zzzz’s while the anglers cast their lines, hoping to catch some dinner.

Seal Sitters had received numerous reports of a seal pup coming and going from Lincoln Park. One evening, just before darkness fell, our First Responder finally got a chance to observe the pup, get some photos and talk with fishermen. Nicknamed Minnow, the pup was alert and seems relatively healthy.

While we may cringe at the thought of the pup navigating through lures and lines - entanglement and injury is always a concern - thus far the mantra to Share the Shore seems to be working out.

We thank the fishermen who have been moving to give Minnow a wide berth and have reeled in their gear when he approaches the beach. Please remember to remove all derelict gear and line from the area. Not only is it a danger to marine life and shorebirds, but also to people - and dogs illegally roaming the beach.

Seal pup season finally arrives in West Seattle

After yesterday morning’s early search of Lincoln Park showed no sign of seal pup Cariad (who had still been resting on the beach the evening before), Seal Sitters’ First Responders gathered up the perimeter materials that warned of his presence through the night. As rain began to fall, the hotline called to say there was a pup on Alki Beach.

Hustling to the new location, Robin and Lynn discovered a dark-coated pup sleeping in a steady rain, just feet from the cement promenade near the Bathhouse. With the help of reporting party John, they quickly stretched yellow tape between cones and sandwich boards with informational signs to create a buffer zone around the snoozing pup.

Thankfully, because of the rain, the beach was relatively deserted. Volunteers talked with a number of people who stopped by. They explained that almost all pups in Central and South Puget Sound are now weaned, with no mom to feed them - and that rest is critical to their survival.

As the rain subsided, the pup nicknamed Olivia (above) began to stir and was curious about the people who spoke respectfully in low voices.

Because the sidewalk could not be entirely closed in order to retain handicap access, many onlookers were enthralled by the opportunity to observe this small marine mammal - quietly, from a very close distance. Seals have excellent hearing and while it may not appear that close proximity by people is disruptive or harmful, scientists have proven that it indeed causes stress - and stress causes health issues. This is the reason NOAA recommends that a distance of 100 yards be maintained from marine mammals. Attempting to accomplish this poses a tremendous challenge for marine mammal stranding networks in urban areas.

The skies brightened after an hour or so and Olivia flopped across the sand and swam off into Puget Sound. Soon afterwards, a dark pup resting on a nearby offshore platform was identified through telephoto images as Olivia.

Small visitor gets lots of lovin' at Lincoln Park

A thin, weaned harbor seal pup drew tons of attention - and inspired alot of educational outreach - yesterday at Lincoln Park. First Responder Lynn got the call around noon from Seal Sitters’ hotline operator Dave about a pup on the beach at the south end of the densely wooded park.

When she arrived, three people were earnestly watching the pup and asked if they could help. Lynn handed them 2 rolls of yellow tape and 6 stakes and she set off to grab Seal Sitters’ stashed barricades near Colman Pool. When she returned shortly thereafter, the trio had set a perimeter to protect the pup. Thank you, Stephen, Kay and Sherri!

Quite a few people were out and about, enjoying the nice weather, and were happy to linger awhile and learn all about seal pup behavior and biology from volunteers. A visiting couple from Wales suggested a Welsh name: Cariad, meaning “sweetheart” or “lovely”. It was a perfect name for this beautiful little pup who was alert throughout the day.

During the sunny and surprisingly hot day, there were as many as three harbor seals foraging just offshore. Quite the contrary to a fisherman’s worry that the pups were “eating all the salmon”, seal pups feed on very small fish and squid. Occasionally, Cariad would yawn widely, displaying a gleaming set of small white teeth. As the tide rose, the pup kept moving on the beach, finally ending up close to the driftwood at the 7:20 pm high tide. At dark, Seal Sitters’ volunteers left Cariad snoozing and the perimeter in place. Thanks to all of the volunteers who spent long hours ensuring Cariad could rest undisturbed.

Early this morning, as the rainbow over Vashon Island dissolved into rain showers, First Responders Lynn and Robin checked the beach, but there was no sign of the pup and all materials were removed.

Seal pup visits Lincoln Park

A seal pup was reported onshore early yesterday morning at Lincoln Park, but he/she swam off into Puget Sound shortly after Seal Sitters’ first responder arrived. A fisherman stated that the pup had been coming and going from the beach near Colman Pool.

Seal pup Little Dipper fattens up in rehab

Seal Sitters has received great news that seal pup Little Dipper, rescued from Lincoln Park at the end of June, is packing on the pounds at PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood. Abandoned on the beach at the popular park, Little Dipper weighed a mere 8.4 kg (18.5 lbs) on intake at the rehabilitation facility. He now weighs a respectable 22.5 kg (49.6 lbs). The pup’s thick layer of blubber will help keep him warm and sustain him with energy once he is back foraging all on his own in the cold waters of Puget Sound.

If all continues well, the plan is to release Little Dipper at the end of this month. Prior to release, all pups are given a thorough examination to make sure there are no underlying health issues. We hope Little Dipper sails through his exam and back to the wild soon!

After long drought in responses, a seal pup finally rests onshore

Seal Sitters’ hotline has been surprisingly quiet the past two months after a flurry of newborn harbor seal pup activity in June. The drought in calls ended around 5:30 pm this evening, however, when hotline operator Renee fielded 2 calls about a “possibly injured” pup onshore in the Duwamish Waterway.

First Responders Lynn and Robin met reporting party Ray at the scenic park, where he led them down a winding path bordering a quiet lagoon. The small, thin pup was sound asleep at the water’s edge.

Protected Marine Mammal tape was strung between trees to close off access to the beautiful seal, with a silky white coat and fine black spots. On the opposite side of the lagoon, tape and signage defined the area as off limits as well.

The responders observed his (or her) behavior through binoculars and did not see any overt sign of injury. The evening tide was quickly rising and the pup moved several times on the tiny beach, reluctant to return to the river. Terribly thin, it was obvious that the pup was not being tended to by an adult female and most likely has been weaned. Weaners can quickly burn through their body fat in the weeks after weaning, before mastering the tricky art of catching fish and squid.

Around 6:30, as the tide swirled around him, the pup nicknamed Rio swam off into the still waters of the Duwamish, which reflected the pinks and blues of the evening sky. We hope he is successful foraging tonight and we’ll be on the lookout for Rio throughout the day tomorrow.

Street banners a reminder to "Share the Shore" with seal pups

Any day now, or so we hope, tiny harbor seal pups will be visiting West Seattle shores to rest and warm up. Each September and October across South and Central Puget Sound, pups venture out on their own after being weaned in area rookeries, where hundreds of seals gather and there is safety in numbers.

No longer protected by their moms and naive to the dangers around them, the pups are vulnerable on urban beaches. Many will have never seen a human or off-leash dog.

Likewise, many people have never encountered a seal pup. They don’t understand that it’s normal for one to be alone on the beach. All seals need to rest 50% of the day out of the water, whether on land, docks or offshore platforms. While it is human nature to want to “help” a pup return to the water or feed him/her, that is truly the last thing that should be done. All marine mammals are protected from harassment by Federal and Washington State law (read the most common mistakes - and consequences here).

Rest is critical to seal pups’ survival, with a 50% mortality the first year. More often than not, weaners struggle, losing the thick layer of blubber they gain by nursing on rich milk - blubber which provides warmth and energy. Now, they are dependent entirely on their own limited hunting skills. Along with dwindling numbers of small forage fish, such as herring, this can be a daunting task for a pup.

On Thursday morning, Dan Campau and James Lohman of Seattle Parks installed Seal Sitters’ “Share the Shore” street banners, which serve to remind residents and visitors that we are in the midst of pupping season in our area. The 10 graphic banners are hung annually from street poles along the popular stretch of sandy Alki Beach - busy with hundreds of people enjoying volleyball, frisbee, kayaking, biking and picnicking; the same Alki Beach where tired seal pups haul out to try to find a quiet place to rest. It is a challenge for SSMMSN volunteers to keep them safe from harassment and harm.

The banner artwork is by New York illustrator Nancy Stahl, based on an image by photographer (and SSMMSN Lead Investigator) Robin Lindsey. Seal Sitters initiated the project as part of a Department of Neighborhoods grant for educational outreach in the West Seattle community in 2011.

After a flurry of four newborn pups in West Seattle this June (only one survived), Seal Sitters MMSN has experienced an unusually quiet July and August. Each season seems to have its oddities and September and October are by far our busiest months. SSMMSN averages 200 responses to marine mammals annually in West Seattle (70% during seal pupping season). A whopping 90% of those responses are to harbor seal pups, who come ashore all along West Seattle’s miles of largely public-accessible shoreline.

If you see a pup on shore, please stay far back, leash and remove dogs from the beach (dogs are not allowed under any circumstances on Seattle beaches), and call Seal Sitters’ hotline @ 206-905-SEAL (7325).
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