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Spanky's thankful for rest

Over the past 4 years, Seal Sitters has come to expect that we’ll have a pup haul out on a holiday. And this Thanksgiving Day was no exception. Spanky came ashore late Thursday morning just as some of us were heading off to stuff ourselves with stuffing. As usual, however, our volunteers came through and watched over the young seal on a dreary and wet November day. Spanky, by far our most prolific pup of the season, was perched on the rocks again today for a much-needed rest after the intense windstorm last night. He reluctantly returned to the Sound late in the day as the tide lapped over his rear flippers.

We hope our volunteers and readers had a wonderful holiday. Please know how thankful we are (and Spanky and his gang, too) for your support.

Cold volunteers enjoy seal pup siesta

Following several stormy and frigid days, Seal Sitters was not surprised to get a call early yesterday morning about a pup hauled out on the sand at Alki. It is not uncommon for seals to ride out storms in the sea rather than be whipped by wind and waves on shore. Exhausted, pups often appear on the beach following rough weather in need of sleep and to warm up in the sun. Our responders quickly taped off a large perimeter in anticipation of alot of pedestrian traffic out enjoying a beautiful, but bitterly cold, Sunday in West Seattle.

The seemingly healthy pup soon attracted a crowd and was nicknamed Sylvie by 5 year old Kayla. Many people were surprised that seal pups were still in the area, but we explained that as long as there was a food source of small bait fish, pups will continue to forage and rest here throughout the winter. An incoming tide whirled around Sylvie, convincing her to leave the beach and swim south along the seawall, seeking another haulout spot. Our volunteer spotted her flop-hopping up the cement steps along the Alki promenade across from Cactus restaurant. Surprised walkers gave her plenty of room to feel safe coming back ashore and she quickly settled in and fell asleep in the sun. It is quite a strange sight to see a seal pup sleeping on the
cement steps, but not a terribly unusual occurrence. Over the past few years, we have had a number of pups who come in at high tide onto the steps. Seals are cumbersome on land, so it is difficult for them to escape quickly back down the stairs as the tide recedes. This is all the more reason that dogs need to be leashed near the beach at all times. You may be anticipating the possibility of encountering a pup on the beach, but you sure don’t expect to see one on the sidewalk. Among our pups who have chosen this unique haulout was last year’s pup Bonair, who really went to the extreme!

Volunteers put in a very long day and well into the night, making sure that this spotted little pup could rest as quietly as possible in such an urban and potentially dangerous setting. Yesterday we talked to approximately 273 quiet and respectful bystanders, including many inquisitive children, about seal biology, the work of the stranding network and volunteer opportunities. Luckily, Sylvie was not terribly skittish and the tired pup rested well over 15 hours on the beach, returning to Puget Sound during the night. Thanks to our frozen volunteers for putting in so many hours on a terribly chilly day!

Harbor porpoise strands in Snohomish County

Both our hotline and Edmonds Seal Sitters received calls about a “dolphin” washed up on a beach north of Edmonds. The animal turned out to be a harbor porpoise, likely a subadult in fairly good condition, with no obvious trauma or visible cause of death. Volunteers took photos, measurements, location information and secured the animal for pickup by a NOAA researcher for necropsy. Recovering the bodies of dead marine mammals is valuable to science and the environment. These necropsies allow us a window not only into the health of the population, but the health of the Sound as well.

Harbor porpoise, the smallest of the porpoise family at 5-5.5 feet long, are local to Puget Sound. They have a grey back and lighter to white belly. The dorsal, or top fin on their back, is a small triangle which differs from the more well-known dolphin with the classic curved dorsal fin. Washington’s largest and best known marine mammals, orcas, are actually the largest of the dolphin species with their distinctive tall, curved dorsal.

If you find a dead or live stranded dolphin or whale on the beach, do not touch or move it. Call the stranding network and keep people and dogs away for both their safety and the safety of the animal. To find your local stranding network and to learn more about strandings, click here.

Sea lion behavior rattles public

When the hotline received a call Monday morning about a sea lion in trouble in West Seattle, we expected to find a sea lion doing what sea lions often do - float and sleep in the water with a flipper in the air - a behavior known as sailing, a means of regulating their body temperature. Instead, our responder observed a seal lion who was drifitng very close along the shore, back above the water and raising his head out of the water to breathe through the mouth every couple of minutes. The animal drifted close to shore for approximately two hours. There was no visible sign of entanglement. Things got even stranger when another male sea lion appeared barking, seemingly distressed and would not leave the other’s side for quite some time. The drifting sea lion was heard barking underwater. The loud vocalizations attracted quite a concerned crowd and the hotline received numerous calls. Our volunteers were quite baffled and consulted by phone with a pinniped expert as we observed the interactions of the two animals. If the huge sea lion was having health concerns nothing could really be done until he stranded on shore. Eventually, both sea lions swam off and it was visually confirmed that there was nothing entangled around the rear flippers. Video was send to WDFW’s marine mammal biologist for review and neither she nor a colleague could determine the significance of the bizarre encounter. The short clip added here has some of the audio removed due to bystanders’ recorded conversations.

The same morning, Sno-King’s responder also investigated a report of an “entangled” sea lion at the ferry terminal on the Seattle waterfront. There was no evidence of entanglement and the sea lion seemed to be resting and drifting close to shore as well.

Fall and winter, the sea lion population increases in Puget Sound and Elliott Bay as males return to our waters looking for food. Females as a rule do not migrate north, although there is one lone female who has resided in the Nisqually region since 2008, fondly nicknamed Nisqually Princess. Biologists are not sure why she has chosen South Puget Sound as her home.

No end in sight for West Seattle volunteers

West Seattle’s crazy seal pup season continues full bore. Today we had 4 pups in different locations. This morning at 5:30 our responder found a pup in a perilous location. Thankfully, the pup returned to Elliott Bay about 7:30 am. We were on the alert since he had hauled out in the same location last night. We are pretty certain the pup was Umbreon, looking very chubby and alert. About 10 am we located Spanky at his usual haulout and taped off the area around him. Even before we could get that perimeter established, the hotline received a call about a pup at Lincoln Park. One of our stalwart volunteers headed for the Park, found the thin pup and began stretching yellow tape between pieces of driftwood and stakes. The pup snoozed til the end of the day. Seal Sitters also investigated a report of a pup on the rocks below Salty’s restaurant. We have yet to identify this pup who returned to Elliott Bay about 4:30 this afternoon after resting since early this morning. Finally, Umbreon hauled out again about 6pm, returning to forage about 8 pm.

What does this all mean? People are surprised that we still have pups hauling out, since “pupping season” is officially over in our area. However, weaned pups continue to need shoreline habitat to rest (as they will their entire lifetime) and they will come ashore near where they forage. It seems apparent that West Seattle has a pretty good food source of late to support a number pups. And it certainly helps that they have found refuge in a location where volunteers respond quickly to help them warm up, doze and recharge undisturbed.

Last year, seal pup Queen Latifah was still hauling out with regularity til late December. Seal Sitters is in the throes of a record breaking year for seal pups. So, volunteers, please keep using the calendar to sign up for shifts - we need your help!

Spanky's back in town

The hotline received a call this morning about a pup on the rocks on the Puget Sound side of West Seattle. Could it possibly be Spanky, returning to his hangout? Sure enough, when our responder arrived she found a very alert and visible Spanky high on the rocks below the sea wall. After taking a quick photo to verify identification and overall condition, she established a tape perimeter so that no one could unwittingly scare the pup back into the water or cause him to fall.

A surprising number of people were out jogging and walking, apparently trying to get their exercise in before the impending rainstorm. Soon thereafter, a cold rain began falling as volunteers arrived to do their “seal sitting” shifts and talk to passersby. We received a number of very nice comments today, thanking us for doing the work we do. That encouragement is always so appreciated, especially when dedicated volunteers are standing out in dreary and challenging weather conditions. We were concerned that we had not seen Spanky since last Friday. He fell deep into an inaccessible hole late Thursday afternoon (where he spent the night), but was rescued about noon the following day, examined for injuries and returned to the Sound. Needless to say, volunteers were thrilled to see him - even swirling winds and bitter rain could not dampen our spirits today. We often joke among ourselves that there should be a 12-step rehab program for volunteers hopelessly addicted to seal pups. Then we just shrug and laugh because the truth is, none of us want to be cured! Spanky returned to the water late in the afternoon at high tide. Thanks to everyone who watched over him.

Seal superhero rescues Spanky

Seal Sitters volunteers had some extremely anxious hours yesterday and today worried about seal pup Spanky. Around 4pm yesterday, an alert volunteer observing from the far end of the tape perimeter noticed Spanky repositioning himself on a high rock just below the sea wall. Spanky lost his balance and fell backwards, deep into a hole surrounded by a pile of huge boulders. Volunteers waited nervously to see if he could somehow climb back up or find an escape route at the bottom. Unfortunately, there was no escape option for Spanky and a low tide meant he had no water to help elevate him. Volunteers scaled the wall and inspected Spanky’s predicament, but there was no way we could reach in far enough to pull him out. Fire Department officials offered sympathy, but could not help because of insurance and liability issues. We knew the high tide at almost 1am this morning would not be high enough - and that the next high tide was not for another full 12 hours after that. Would it even be high enough for him to maneuver out and over the steep, slick rocks?

We turned to WDFW Marine Mammal Investigations’ biologist Dyanna Lambourn for her usual sage advice. She thought perhaps with a snare we could loop his back flippers and pull him up. So, that was the game plan put into action for this morning. Having spent a long and stressful night, Spanky was still trapped inside the hole at 6am, but was alert - a good sign. Read More...

Wiser pups choose safer haulouts

Volunteers are still observing and protecting pups in West Seattle, but sometimes in less trafficked locations. Weaned pups, now older and a bit more wary of strangers, often choose safer spots to haul out and, of late, we have responded to a number of reports of pups on private beaches. The morning following Abe’s brush with an off leash dog, he was found resting on a private beach north of Lincoln Park. Later that afternoon, he showed up back at the Park for a snooze, returning to the Sound as the sun set (photo right). Abe was observed over the next few days on private beaches, but was last seen Wednesday at Lincoln Park where he spent over 12 hours on the beach and was looking a bit too thin.

New pup Joy spent Friday in the rain on a private beach south of Alki, while another pup slept safely on a platform offshore. Homeowners kept a watchful eye on the pup until she returned to the Sound late in the afternoon. We have responded to reports of two additional pups hauling out on private beaches stretching as far south as Brace Point, where many homeowners have voiced concerns about off leash dogs.

Spanky (left) continues to amuse everyone almost daily with his balancing act on the rocks below the seawall. A craggy rock with its easy getaway into the surf is a more attractive resting spot for an older pup than a beach crowded with people. Onlookers remain respectful of the need to stay back from the wall so that he can relax and not feel threatened. Spanky appears to be having great success foraging, producing a good blubber layer to keep him warm in the frigid waters of Puget Sound. Spanky’s long whiskers, called vibrissae, help him find food in the dark water and at night by sensing the vibration and movement of prey. One recent scientific study reveals that seals may not only be able to detect fish up to 600 feet away using solely their whiskers, but also the size and shape of prey. Researcher Wolf Hanke says, “This strongly suggests that the seal can sense different species of fish. If the seal can avoid tracking fish that are too small or too big, this saves energy” (NY Times). Each highly sensitive whisker (seals have 40-50 on each side of their snout) has up to 1500 nerves at the base. The research shows that a harbor seal’s whiskers are as efficient at detecting fish as echolocating dolphins.
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