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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.

Seal pup Polo taken for treatment at PAWS

Over the course of several days, a very active seal pup (nicknamed Polo) kept Seal Sitters’ responders on their toes, trying to keep pace with his haul-out patterns. The hotline received a call about a pup on the beach at 53rd and Alki around noon on Thursday, but the pup had already returned to the water when first responder Lynn arrived. Polo hauled out again twice in the early and late evening at the same location. A generous perimeter was set on the beach, but onlookers were treated to a very close view of the pup from the seawall.

On Friday, Polo came ashore and then left 5 different times during the day and evening. It was wisely decided to leave the tape perimeter intact to protect him during his frequent forays back and forth to the Sound. Polo broke his own haul-out record by round-tripping 6 times during the day and night on Saturday! Volunteers watched over him until after 10pm and a concerned neighbor (thank you, Leeann) held vigil until midnight. The pup was still snoozing soundly when Leeann left for home.

Polo was gone from the beach at 6am yesterday morning, but an alert walker noticed a pup sleeping near the water about an hour later. It was Polo, but this time he was in serious physical distress. He was immediately rescued and taken to PAWS for hydration and stabilization. Thankfully, PAWS had an open space for an incoming seal pup. The estimated 6-8 week old male pup weighs less than 8 kg (less than a newborn pup).

Polo showed no signs of health issues over the three days volunteers observed him, except for being underweight - a common problem with weaned seal pups. This just drives home the fact that these young pups are in a daily struggle to survive, while it may not be evident to us that there are underlying health issues. All of the pups we have looked after this season have been far too thin.

PAWS reported this morning that Polo did indeed survive the night. Please stayed tuned as we provide updates on his condition. Many thanks to the exhausted first responders and all the volunteers (and caring public) who protected sweet Polo along West Seattle’s shoreline.


We received a report last evening that Polo is still stabilized at PAWS, though his condition is “guarded”. He is battling several health issues, including potential lung worm infection, and has multiple infected bite wounds (from an undetermined source). Lungworm is a serious problem in weaned seal pups. As struggling pups tend to lose weight while they transition from nursing to foraging for food, parasites can seize this opportunity to take over. Pups’ immune systems are not yet strong enough to fight off these lung and heart parasite loads. The “worming” treatment itself is terribly dangerous in itself for a weak pup. Polo has some major hurdles to overcome and we thank PAWS for their valiant efforts to save him.


Sadly, PAWS reports this morning that Polo has died. The pup was transferred to WDFW-MMI for necropsy.
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