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Steller and California sea lions off Lincoln Park

Of late, a number of sea lions, including the endangered steller sea lion (shown here), have been feeding and sleeping in the waters off Lincoln Park. Stellers are much more massive than the California sea lions we are used to seeing on the Elliott Bay buoy and sailing in Puget Sound. The average size of an adult male steller is 9 feet in length and 1500 lbs as compared to an adult male California sea lion (CSL) weighing up to 1000 lbs at 8.2 feet. Stellers have a distinctly lighter colored coat and much larger head than the CSLs.

Due to more recent sightings of stellers and elephant seals, we will be adding pages devoted to those pinnipeds on our website. Please check back for updates.

Pup loses struggle to survive

Yesterday around noon Seal Sitters responded to the report of a pup on a private beach. The beach was inaccessible to the public except at low tide when many people walk with their dogs along the water’s edge. It is for this reason that we established a tape barrier at the northwest end of Constellation Park, despite sustained high winds and waves. Thankfully, at low tide a drenching rain squall moved in over West Seattle which deterred even the most hardy of wave watchers. Our volunteer checked as late as 8:37 pm and the very thin pup had not yet returned to the water. Earlier in the day arrangements had been made to take the pup to PAWS this morning if he was still on the beach. Sadly, our responders found the little one dead at approximately 6:30 am. It is NOAA policy that if a pup is coming and going from the beach, there is to be no intervention. One never wants to remove a viable animal from the wild. Capture and transport can be terribly stressful on a seal pup, often escalating health issues, and is only done as a last resort.

Photo comparison of markings had determined yesterday evening that this was the same pup we watched over on Wednesday at Luna Park. It was evident that afternoon that the pup had some health issues, though it could not be determined how serious. However, to our volunteers’ relief, the pup (nicknamed Babe because she was so tiny and precious) returned to Elliott Bay when the tide came in. It is always an encouraging sign when a pup returns to the water to forage for food.

As we have stated many times, seal pups only have a 50% survival rate for the first year. It is critical that all of these pups be given the space to rest undisturbed so that they can conserve their very few expendable calories. It takes every bit of strength for them to survive in what seems too often like a very harsh world. Thanks to all the waterfront residents who were so concerned and cooperative in efforts to help this pup. A necropsy will be performed by WDFW Marine Mammal Investigations Unit to determine cause of death.

UPDATE 2/20/11:
The necropsy results have revealed that this very thin female pup was managing to forage (with 20 squid beaks in her stomach and fish bones in the feces). However, the blubber layer was terribly inadequate. There was evidence of some heartworms and lungworms, the parasite load was not significant. Tissue samples were sent out for tests for bacteria and viral load, but those results will not be returned for some time. As the marine mammal biologist who performed the necropsy told us, often low body weight alone is enough to tip them just past the edge of survival.

Small weaner rests in the sunshine

A small weaned pup, nicknamed Babe, came ashore mid-afternoon yesterday and enjoyed some sunshine for a couple of hours before returning to the water. We are analyzing video and still images for health assessment of the pup. Most pups struggle with low weight and parasite loads this time of year and this pup appears to be no exception. Nature can be harsh on young animals, but as long as the pup is able to come and go from the beach and forage that is a good sign. We are comparing markings to see if the pup is one we have observed this season. As always, please call us if you spot any marine mammal on shore.

Abby returns to the Salish Sea after stormy night

Concerns that last night’s high winds and surf would force Abby, the molting elephant seal, from her safe resting place on the private beach proved well-founded. Our volunteer arrived before dawn only to find Abby gone, but then was pleasantly surprised to see her relaxing and blowing bubbles just offshore. Abby spent the next hour and a half drifting leisurely in the calm water reflecting the pink and blue shades of dawn - a very mesmerizing and dreamlike sight. The water rinsing over her sore body, sand-caked eyes and nostrils must have felt a bit like heaven to her. In the video you can see the distinct pointed nose, characteristic of a female elephant seal. Abby drifted slowly southward and it appeared that she might be interested in hauling back out onto the beach, but suddenly there were no more bursts of bubbles and she was gone - most likely out to grab some breakfast after fasting on the beach for several days. Our volunteers scoured beaches throughout the day, but did not see her. We will be checking the same private beach before dawn in case she returns with the high tide. If you are a waterfront homeowner, please call our hotline if she shows up on your beach.

Rafting sea lions spark calls of concern

Seal Sitters received calls late this morning from concerned citizens regarding a marine mammal “entangled” approximately 100 yards offshore at Lincoln Park. Our responder followed up on the report, but as she suspected, it was three California sea lions snoozing in the water. Often sea lions sleep in small or large groups - a behavior called rafting - with only a flipper or tail visible to help them regulate their body temperature. Periodically, a nose will pop out of the water briefly for a breath and then disappear. It is an unnerving sight to those who are not familiar with the behavior.

Abby the ellie still resting on private beach

Abby, the healthy elephant seal whom we have been observing since Thursday, spent another day molting on the beach. As the day wore on and the weather improved, more neighbors came down to see this rotund female (yes, it has been confirmed that she is a female) and learn about the molting process of seals. Very early this drizzly morning, Abby reacted to the incoming tide by showing what is typically a defense behavior - opening the mouth and extending the nose (see video). Perhaps she was just longing to return to the sea to wash off her aching body. Tonight’s wind storm should be a challenge for her, but we expect her to still be on the shore. Check back for an update tomorrow. Thanks to all the great beach residents who are being so respectful of Abby’s need for space.

Elephant seal seeks quiet beach to molt

Seal Sitter’s hotline received a call yesterday afternoon with a report of an elephant seal on a private stretch of beach in West Seattle. Mary, the reporting party and waterfront resident, was confident that it was indeed an ellie (as they are affectionately called) since there had been one on her beach for an extended time last year. Sure enough, our volunteer found the huge seal nestled among the logs and taped off a perimeter to warn residents and beach walkers of her presence. Photos and video were sent to WDFW’s marine mammal biologist who confirmed that the seal was molting and would most likely be on the beach for at least a week.

Molting is a process of shedding the skin and fur. Seals shed their fur each year and harbor seals molt shortly after the breeding season over a period of about 4 weeks. For the elephant seal, however, molting is a grueling endeavor. Every year they shed not only their fur, but also the first layer of skin in a matter of weeks. It is such an abrupt process, taking place in a very short length of time, that it is called a catastrophic molt. As you can imagine, it is terribly uncomfortable and painful. During that time, the seal typically remains on the beach and does not return to the water to forage until the molt is complete. The animal is generally pretty miserable and it is a disturbing sight to the public, but be assured that this seal is quite healthy and will soon have a beautiful, new svelte coat. This elephant seal has been nicknamed Abby. We are pretty sure the seal is female but have not completely verified that. If Abby turns out to be male, we will have to change the name to Fat Albert because this is one very, very rotund seal! Certainly there are no worries that this seal won’t have enough blubber to last through the fast. It is conceivable that this is the same female who chose this quiet spot to molt last year.

Unfortunately, like all too many West Seattle beaches, illegally off leash dogs are a real concern. Volunteers and residents intercepted a number of dogs who were headed straight for Abby. Unlike small seal pups who usually end up injured in this scenario, this elephant seal is several hundred pounds and not feeling well. It could easily end up that both the dog and Abby could get severely injured as she tries to defend herself. We want to ensure that Abby is able to rest as discreetly and safely as possible during her trying time. It is part of Seal Sitters’ role in the marine mammal stranding network to help keep both the animals and the public safe at all times.
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