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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.

Intense week for Seal Sitters as pups struggle to survive

The past week has been a busy one for seal pups and volunteers trying to protect them. Seal pup Kitten, who first appeared on Alki Beach last Monday, continues to get desperately-needed rest almost daily along on this bustling westside stretch of shore. He has been spending long days and nights to gather strength to forage, including all day Friday into the night on the very busy area by the volleyball courts. Volunteers spoke to hundreds of curious beach-goers over a more than 12-hour period. Increasingly (and alarmingly) thin, the pup spent yesterday under the watchful eye of volunteers and waterfront residents, sleeping throughout the day on private beach near the Lighthouse. With public access at lower tides and issues with off-leash dogs, a small stretch of the beach was closed to help him rest undisturbed. Thanks to the great homeowners who were passionate about protecting this struggling pup!

Late yesterday afternoon, the hotline received a report of a pup just north of Lincoln Park’s Colman Pool. Responders were on the scene promptly and established a tape perimeter. The small, beautifully marked pup was nicknamed Fudge.

Luckily, we were able to capture a photo of Fudge with a big yawn which showed that all of the teeth have erupted, but some are still on the small size. Teeth are a good indicator of approximate age of a pup and helps us determine whether the pup is still nursing age or on his own. According to WDFW’s marine mammal biologist, after reviewing the photo, the pup is between 3-5 weeks old. Since pups can be weaned at 4 weeks, the jury is still out on Fudge - perhaps mom is still in the picture; however, the pup is a bit thinner than we’d like to see for one who is potentially still nursing. Fudge entertained people throughout the afternoon into the evening as he stretched and yawned close to the walking path. Volunteers put in many long hours ensuring he was safe.

PUPDATE 9/3/13
We are so sad to report that Kitten was found dead on private beach yesterday morning and transported for necropsy by WDFW-MMI in Lakewood. 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. She was suffering from gastroenteritis.

Volunteers put in long hours looking after pups

Dedicated volunteers have been putting in many long hours protecting seal pups along Alki Beach since sunrise Monday morning. One pup (at right), nicknamed Kitten by a some youngsters who quietly studied him snoozing below the sea wall, seems to have chosen this relatively quiet spot on the beach for his haul-out, well away from the bustle of the main beach and volleyball nets.

Volunteers looked over him in shifts, talking to the public and letting people know that undisrupted rest is vital to a pup’s survival. Much to our surprise, that evening another pup flopped ashore right next to two women picnicking on the beach. They quickly gathered up their blankets and cooler and graciously moved down the beach. They named the pup Irie, which means happy in the Jamaican language. Both pups returned to the Sound at almost precisely the same moment, about 8pm.

Kitten, who is a “weaner” with fully erupted teeth, is definitely thinner than we’d like to see. He was back on shore at 6am yesterday morning along with Irie, who returned to the water about 6:30am. Kitten apparently needs more rest and stayed on the beach until late last night before finally returning to the Sound to forage.

It could be another long day for volunteers, such as Ruby shown at right drawing seals in her sketchpad while on duty. Huge flipper hugs to Tammy and Alki Juice and Java for extending a special coffee and hot chocolate discount to our volunteers!

Seal pup Irie was found dead near the Alki Bathhouse on August 31st. The thin pup was not fresh enough for necropsy and was marked for identification purposes with biodegradable spray paint and returned to the Sound.

We are so sad to report that Kitten was found dead on private beach yesterday morning and transported for necropsy by WDFW-MMI in Lakewood. 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. She was suffering from gastroenteritis.
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