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Seal pup deaths hit volunteers hard

The 2013 harbor seal pupping season in the West Seattle area is off to a grueling start. We have seen nothing but severely emaciated pups in the past weeks - including newborn Sparkle (shown here with a yearling) who was abandoned by her mom due to boater harassment. Thus far, not a single reasonably plump and viable pup has rested on our shores. Even veteran first responders who deal with marine mammal death frequently throughout the year, find ourselves with tear-filled eyes as we watch these pups struggle to survive. With limited rehabilitation space and funding cuts for research, our hands are tied in too many situations.

Yes, there is a 50% mortality rate within the first year of life for seal pups. However, prior to the past two seasons, we had a number of robust, vital pups foraging and hauling out to rest and warm up on the beach - in addition to those who were dangerously underweight and teetering on that thin line between life and death. This constant stream of terribly thin pups the past two years should not be the norm. Seal Sitters’ Year of the Seal: Sentinels of the Sound educational outreach project was born out of concern for the health of our seal pups and our troubled waters. We are so saddened to report the number of seal pups that SS has responded to that have died in the past few weeks has now reached 9 - many of those pups were ones that volunteers devoted hundreds of hours of observation and protection.

While Seal Sitters may not have been able to save these pups, our volunteers and a very caring public let them rest undisturbed and leave this world with dignity and love. And we were able to educate many, many people who stood captivated as the pups stretched and yawned and occasionally gazed back at them. These pups touched us all very deeply.

On a much happier note, emaciated seal pup Snapper who was rescued from the beach at Cormorant Cove on August 6th has been thriving in rehab at PAWS Wildlife Center. Snapper weighed 8.8 kg upon admission to PAWS and at last report was true “blubberball” weight in excess of 20kg. The pup will be released back to the wild near Everett’s Jetty Island in mid-October. Read about Snapper.

We received heartbreaking news that seal pup Polo died Thursday morning, September 19th, at PAWS Wildlife Center. Polo was rescued early morning on the 15th as he suffered from seizures in the tideline below the Alki Avenue sea wall and taken to PAWS. This sweet little pup fought valiantly for almost a week, as PAWS’ staff did everything in their power to save him, but to no avail.

Volunteers had observed and protected Polo for numerous days that week, with no indication of serious health issues - other than being thin, but not nearly as thin as other pups before him. However, one thing responders have learned over the course of the past 7 years is that a pup’s health can take a drastic turn for the worse seemingly overnight. Such seems to be the case with Polo.

The necropsy by WDFW-MMI reveals that Polo had a blubber thickness of only .2 cm. A healthy, robust pup should have a blubber thickness over 2.5 cm and weigh 20-25 kg. A pup with a thickness of less than 1cm is not likely to be able to survive. The seizures were most likely due to hypoglycemia as a result of emaciation. Read about Polo here.

Sparkle, the pup most likely abandoned by her mom because of boater harassment at the Alki platform, was euthanized at PAWS on September 9th. She was estimated to be about 5 days old when rescued from the beach by Seal Sitters first responders. PAWS’ Dr. John Huckabee believes Sparkle’s immune system was not functioning properly, as she struggled the entire time she was there with digestive issues, ear and other infections and a heart murmur. Read about Sparkle here.

On Wednesday, September 18th, SS Lead Investigator Robin Lindsey and Seattle Aquarium biologist Jarett Kaplan paddled out along with SS Science Advisor Buzz Shaw to examine, mark and sink the body of seal pup Angel. Terribly thin, Angel visited our shore very briefly on Saturday the 14th, but died a day or so later on the offshore Alki platform. We had to wait several days until there were no other seals using the raft to do the retrieval. The body was marked with biodegradable spray paint for identification purposes (in case the body came ashore elsewhere) and returned to the Sound to nourish other animals in the ecosystem. Many thanks to Jarett for keeping an eye on the platform for a window of opportunity to examine Angel.

First responders discovered Kitten dead on a private beach south of the Alki promenade on September 2nd. The thin female pup had been guarded by volunteers the previous day and many days prior. Her body was taken for necropsy by WDFW-MMI. The female pup weighed only 7.9 kg with a .3 cm blubber thickness. A normal thickness for robust pup is between 2.5 and 3 cm. Among other complications, she was suffering from gastroenteritis. Read about Kitten here.

Irie hauled out during the evening of August 26th at Alki, not too far from where volunteers were watching over seal pup Kitten. The pup was alert and plumper than most. Irie was found dead by the Bathhouse on August 31st, marked with biodegradable paint for identification purposes and returned to the Sound.

BellaBaby (at left) was found dead on a private beach just north of Lincoln Park on August 24th. She had been observed resting the day before at a nearby location. The pup was transported to WDFW-MMI for necropsy which revealed that the pup weighed 9 kg, was 80 cm in length and had a blubber thickness of .9. On examination, BellaBaby had an abnormal “fatty liver”, which can occur in weaned pups as they convert from a fatty diet (mom’s milk is about 50% fat) to starvation. Read about BellaBaby here.

Busy days for seal pups and Seal Sitters

Seal Sitters volunteers have been kept on the run from 6am til after dark most days so far this week. On Tuesday, there was a resting pup (nicknamed Curly for his/her long and curvy whiskers) at the north end of Lincoln Park. Newly weaned, Curly spent the night on the beach, but returned to shore after only a brief early breakfast. He settled in for another snooze, but left soon thereafter.

Just about the same time Tuesday afternoon, seal pup BellaBaby returned for the second day in a row to Emma Schmitz viewpoint park. Bella snoozed throughout the night, but was gone the following morning. Volunteers watched after both pups until darkness fell. Due to safety concerns for our volunteers we do not usually stand guard all night, especially in remote locations such as Lincoln Park.

Wednesday was a crazy day for volunteers. After Curly returned to Puget Sound at Lincoln Park, we received another call about a pup near Cormorant Cove. This pup was terribly thin, but managed to crawl across a long expanse of open beach back to the water.

Immediately afterwards, the hotline received a call about a pup at Constellation Beach (Charles Richey Viewpoint Park). Whipping on a pair of dry socks, our responder quickly arrived to meet the reporting party, Mark and his 6 year old son Matthew. This pup was high on the beach and Matthew helped get a large perimeter taped off around the sleeping pup.

Matthew named the pup Wilson after his “Granpa Wilson.” Wilson (photo left) was reluctant to return to the water even as the tide swept over him. Just when we thought he might go out foraging for food, he scooted further up on the rocks. As an attentive and delighted crowd watched from the sidewalk, Wilson snoozed just below them until late that night. We believe now that Wilson might not be weaned, based on photos of a partial yawn showing that some teeth have not fully erupted. Hopefully, there is a mom out there who will help him pack on some much-needed blubber.

We received a report yesterday afternoon that a group of 8 “teenagers” with 2 pit bulls went under the tape and down the ramp (where Wilson had last been sleeping) around midnight. The witness called 911, but wisely did not confront the group and left the area. We are following up with the SW Precinct on this report. There was no evidence of foul play at the scene yesterday morning, but we did not see Wilson all day. We can only hope that if Wilson was still on the beach, this tired and thin pup was able to escape harm.

Pupping season hits West Seattle with two seal pups in two days

Seal Sitters’ hotline has been busy the last two days with reports of pups on the beach. Last evening we received a call from two of our newest volunteers who came upon a pup at Alki near the Statue of Liberty. When responders arrived minutes later, the alert pup was nestled behind a log with curious people too close. The crowd was asked to step back to allow him to settle in and rest.

Volunteers such as Dave (at right) talked at length to passersby. Terrianne, on her first day of duty as a Seal Sitter, named the active pup Perky. Perky settled in for a long nap as the sun set and spent a quiet night within the perimeter. He was sound asleep this morning at 5:39am and returned to the Sound about 6:45. Perky had good body weight and appears to be recently weaned.

This afternoon the hotline rang with a call about a pup on the steps at Emma Schmitz Viewpoint Park. Thanks to reporting party Melissa for protecting the pup until we arrived. The thin pup was on the bottom step with the tide lapping against her and returned briefly to the Sound, only to emerge moments later on a very small stretch of beach right next to two young people. Quickly gathering up their belongings, they left the beach to give the pup some much-needed space. Photos of the yawning pup revealed fully erupted teeth, indicating she is no longer nursing on mom’s rich milk.

Despite the yellow tape perimeter and signs clearly posting that a seal pup was resting on the beach, the tape was breached. We need to remind people that “harassment” by definition of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) is not just poking, feeding, or moving animals. ANY disturbance, even waking a pup, is considered a violation of Federal law.

Nicknamed BellaBaby, shown here taking a brief dip in the cool Sound on this hot afternoon, the pup rested until after dark under the protective watch of volunteers. Thanks to all our dedicated volunteers who have put in very long hours the past two days (and nights)! These newly weaned pups need all the help they can get from a respectful public in their struggle to survive without mom. Stress-free rest is critical.

PUPDATE (8/20/13 7:31am)
BellaBaby was still resting on the beach this morning as the tide was receding. She may well spend several more hours there, gaining strength before returning to forage and, hopefully, pack on some much-needed blubber.
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