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Seal pups on shore briefly today and others hanging around

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Seal Sitters education and science advisor Buzz Shaw, retired zoologist of many years at the Seattle Aquarium, was out early this morning looking for a river otter family in Elliott Bay. He didn’t locate the otters, but happened to notice a harbor seal pup haul out on a small strip of beach below the sea wall. He immediately notified our first responder and hotline. The alert and seemingly robust pup wasn’t around for long, though, as the incoming tide forced him to return to the gray, rain dappled waters of the bay. The weaned pup was nicknamed Tiger for his visible stripes that are in reality blubber folds or lines (pups have them when they come out of the womb), sometimes seen on both robust pups as well as emaciated ones. It was a welcome relief to have a somewhat chunky pup for a change after so many terribly skinny ones.

Later in the afternoon, 4 pups were observed foraging along the shoreline, but none that we know of came ashore. A pup was also sighted briefly on the protected beach at Jack Block Park. Perhaps the pups are resting at night or in locations that are less visible. The good news is, however, that we have pups still hanging around West Seattle and that they seem to be actively feeding. In the photo you can see Tiger’s long whiskers which detect vibrations from prey in the water. A recent study showed that the highly sensitive vibrasse contain thousands of nerves which enable a seal not only to locate prey, but determine size and species. This is why harbor seals are very effective hunters even at night or in deep, dark waters.

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All of the harbor seal pups in South Puget Sound are now fully weaned. Almost all of the youngsters have left the relative safety of the rookeries to venture off on their own - and area haul-outs are full of grumpy adult seals, molting their coats and spending extended time on shore and less time feeding. While the molting process of harbor seals is not as grueling as the “catastrophic molt” of elephant seals, it is still a very trying time, particularly as winter months approach. Females who expended all of their resources to nurse pups for 4-6 weeks now face the additional physical stress of the molt. Thanks to WDFW-MMI for providing this seal cam photo of a freshly molted seal with a smooth new coat along with others who are still molting. Don’t forget to check out the WDFW seal cam webpage for a real-time look at a harbor seal haul-out and lots of informative articles and videos.

Haul-outs this time of year are not a welcoming place for new “weaners” to linger. All the more reason we need to offer them sanctuary on our urban beaches.

Respect harbor seal haulouts - it's life and death for seal pups

Boaters, kayakers and jet skiers: Please be aware that locations where harbor seals gather are sensitive and vital areas - and disturbances to seal colonies can be devastating for newborn pups. Many Puget Sound islands have state parks with seal haul outs, where the animals gather in numbers to rest and, this time of year, give birth and nurse their young. Adult harbor seals are extremely skittish and the slightest disturbance can cause a stampede into the water, often leaving vulnerable pups alone on shore. If people land watercraft or swim or picnic close to a pup, the mom may well abandon him. On a state park island last year, WDFW Marine Mammal Investigations’ biologist found a group of picnickers surrounding a pup and was told they were “waiting for the mom to return.” It is no surprise that the mom never did.

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This week, our lead responder accompanied that biologist on observations of South Puget Sound harbor seal rookeries. Responding to a report of a dead seal pup on that same small island with a known seal colony and a history of conflict with recreational boaters, we found two dead pups as well as three that were emaciated and weak, but alive - and several boats and a number of people way too close. We were told that just before we arrived a man tried to put one of the pups back into the water (one of many instances, we are sure). There is no chance a mom will return to take care of her pup under these circumstances. At right is a photo which shows the tiny island on a typical August day - a virtual flotilla of boats and people (click on the Google Earth photo to enlarge). There are reports of 100 boats at this island on a weekend.

     
This video shows seals fleeing from a nearby South Puget Sound rookery - as an eagle lands near them. You can imagine their terror when a boat lands on their beach.

Enforcing the Marine Mammal Protection Act in remote areas is challenging. Park rangers are few and far between and access to respond to islands is especially difficult. Signs that are posted are either torn down or graffitied beyond recognition. It appears that too many humans feel that their “right” to be in nature supersedes animals’ rights to survive in their daily life and death struggle. We are dependent upon the public to spread the word that no matter where you are, if you encounter a marine mammal on the beach, you are to stay 100 yards away. If someone is harassing a pup on the beach, call Seal Sitters’ hotline @ 206-905-7325 (SEAL) immediately and we will contact the proper authorities. Take a discreet photo of a boat showing license number - NOAA Office for Law Enforcement has a better chance of prosecution with physical evidence. Do not put yourself in harm’s way. If you find a pup that appears to be abandoned, keep your distance and call the hotline.

Quiet day for Seal Sitters

     
Today was a much-needed quiet day for our volunteers. Still no confirmed sightings of ET; however, a pup was sleeping in the water early this morning near his last haul out spot. Yes, seals can sleep in the water and underwater, holding their breath for about 25 minutes. Queen Latifah wasn’t sleeping, though - she was having breakfast in her usual fishing hole and then spent a fair amount of time trying to haul out on the slippery rocks. She was tired and wanted to rest, but the tide was still a bit high for her to get onto her favorite rock. She was persistent and finally succeeded as you can see in this video clip. All seals (adults and pups) spend about 50% of their time resting and warming up on shore.

Ebb and flow determines haul out patterns of pups

     
The ebb and flow of tides greatly affects the haul out patterns of seals and seal pups. The pups that are currently using the City-side rocks for their haulout take advantage of the high tide to secure a spot far up on the rocks. This ensures that when the water level recedes, they are able to rest for many hours without being disturbed by encroaching waves.

In the photo above, taken at late afternoon’s high tide, you can see Queen Latifah (on the right) who has just hauled out, along with another yet unidentified pup (on the left) who had been hauled out since the prior high tide at 7am. In the opposite photo, you can see the pup sleeping on the same rock at low tide - quite a disturbing sight to onlookers who worry that the pup is stranded.

     
If you have ever wondered why we’ve had a number of pups on the Alki steps or even on the sea wall, this is the reason why. They come in at high tide, which gives them easy access, and they rest until the tide returns. Read the story of Forte, the world’s smartest seal pup, here. Forte came in at high tide and settled right under the Marine Mammal Protection sign on the sea wall at Alki.

There are many factors which determine the haul out patterns of seals - and not all seals haul out at high tide. There are some haul outs that are only accessible at low tide. Other sites are accessible at all times and access is not affected by tidal influence. So, patterns appear to be site specific, but time of day, time of season, air temperature, wind and precipitation are all factors in addition to tidal heights. You can read one of many scientific papers on haul out patterns here.

UPDATE: The unidentified pup here came to be known as ET.
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