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Seal season off to a rough start in West Seattle

Each harbor seal pupping season (late June - September in South Puget Sound) seems to have its own unique properties. We hate to say it, but this 2014 season is off to a bleak start in West Seattle.

Some years, Seal Sitters MMSN responds to lots of pups who show up only for a day or so. Other years, we’ll have a number of pups, successfully making the transition from nursing on mom’s rich milk to foraging on their own, who come ashore for many days in a row (like Spanky and Queen Latifah, both of whom hauled out every day for two months) - the years we seemed to have a surplus of small forage fish in the Fall.

Most years, we have a mix of some healthy pups (like Queen Latifah at left on her rocky throne in 2011) to offset the many struggling ones. The last few years, however, we have had way too many terribly thin pups who didn’t survive. So, the stranding network never knows quite what to expect.

The 2014 season so far has had its quirks, too. For the first time in our 8 years as a stranding network, in early June we had a full lanugo, month-premature pup, believed to have been born on busy Alki Beach. Nicknamed Luigi, he was the earliest newborn pup on record for West Seattle. Sadly, the tiny, abandoned pup had to be euthanized. Another abandoned, but full-term pup was rescued by Seal Sitters from the craggy rocks at Duwamish Head at the end of June. This pup, Junebug, was successfully rehabbed at PAWS Wildlife Center and released back to the wild on August 26th.

To date, Junebug is the only highlight in what is shaping up to be a very disheartening season. Statistically, seal pupping season in West Seattle is recorded from our first response to a newborn pup in the calendar year (usually in mid-late July or August) through the end of the year as pups continue to use the shoreline. We have had fewer responses than our record-breaking season last year, but already have a higher dead pup count in this recent period from the lanugo pup in early June through September 20th. A full third of our responses this season have been to dead pups or pups that subsequently died. Disturbingly, we have had three pups die in recent weeks with numerous bite wounds to the head and body. Are the seal pups getting roughed up before leaving the rookeries by adult males, intent on mating and competing for space - or are they being attacked on our shores by off-leash dogs or coyotes? That is a question we most likely cannot answer with limited funding for necropsies.

We had high hopes for a bumper crop of healthy pups this year, based on reports from biologists observing moms and pups at South Puget Sound rookeries. Apparently, there was less pup abandonment and death this season at one historic harbor seal haulout. As of last week at that island rookery south of Tacoma, only 24 pups (2 of those still nursing) remained - the other chubby 100 or so newly weaned pups had already dispersed, headed elsewhere to forage and rest. Perhaps some of those pups will head our way, evening out responses to emaciated ones.

As we mention over and over in these posts, harbor seal pups are in a daily struggle to survive - and health can take a dramatic downturn in just a matter of days. Undisrupted rest can truly make the difference between life and death. With the approaching wet and chill of fall and winter months, seal pups face many challenges ahead of them. While Seal Sitters volunteers can’t control the effects of pollution, disease or declining fish stocks (including that of two sustaining forage fish for seal and sea lion pups: Pacific herring and sardines), what we can do is help pups get the rest they need, giving them a better chance at survival. Additionally, we can spread some powerful education about these amazing animals who share equal time in the sea and on land.

Despite the emotional ups and downs for volunteers, Seal Sitters MMSN will always do our best to ensure that seal pups are protected - free from stress - while resting on our shores. You can help. Please, call our dedicated hotline at 206-905-SEAL (7325) if you see a marine mammal, dead or alive, on public or private beach.

Weather cools down, but seal pup activity heats up

Just as fall weather has turned very brisk, so has the number of seal pup responses along West Seattle’s shoreline. There has been a noticeable increase in activity the past week or so. According to Seal Sitters volunteer Richard, an avid diver, he has been seeing more bait balls of the small forage fish that are indispensable to the marine ecosystem and a favorite food of seal pups (read more about forage fish here). Last evening until just after dark, Richard and fellow volunteer Suzanne looked over new pup Humphrey who snoozed below Beach Drive. A very tiny pup, Humphrey could stand to snack on some of those fish and pack on some blubber to keep him warm in Puget Sound’s frigid waters. He returned to the water sometime overnight.

Seal pup Tiger continues his/her routine of hauling out just around dark every evening on the Elliott Bay side of West Seattle. He is thriving and it is a joy for volunteers to see such a seemingly healthy, vigorous pup. Tiger does seal pup yoga on the smooth beach sand, stretching his tail high and curving his body into a “u” shape - the classic “banana pose”. This behavior is his way of circulating warmth - or thermoregulating his temperature.

On a somewhat unusual note, for the past two days (possibly more that we were unaware of) pups have been hanging out together on the rocks along one of the sea walls. These young harbor seals come in at high tide during the night and are left quite vulnerable resting on the jagged rocks far above the water level, where they wait for the tide to return.

Each morning, responders have taped off the area above them so that they can rest undisturbed and not be at risk for fall and potential injury. Despite this, on Tuesday morning a woman went under the tape clearly marked with a “Do Not Enter” sign, standing a few yards from the pups and refused to leave, asking what harm she was doing. We tried to explain to her that there was a very real danger to these pups if they were scared and tumbled down 15 feet of craggy rocks with deep holes (seal pups Henry and Spanky fell deep into holes in past seasons).This is, of course, beside the fact that going under the tape and disturbing a maine mammal is breaking a federal law, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (read more here). It was quite sad that this woman created a contentious scene over our efforts to give these pups some rest. The pups could easily be seen from a sidewalk viewpoint and the posted signs explained that seal pups need undisrupted, stress-free rest to survive against challenging odds - a 50% mortality. People standing too close is most definitely a source of stress, which has been proven in many studies to negatively impact health in humans and animals. Thankfully, unpleasant incidents are rare. Most people are thrilled and empowered to be able to help a pup survive by simply giving them space.

Volunteers set up a viewing scope so that the public could get an exceptionally close view of the pups, one with a beautiful light coat and the other with luxurious dark fur. It was a fantastic opportunity for passersby to learn about seal pup biology and behavior. The two pups returned to Elliott Bay mid-afternoon Tuesday when the tide finally reached them (photo right). The body weight of these two weaner pups seems to reflect that there is indeed more of a food source out there and we’ve observed quite a few pups fishing offshore. Most often, a pup will haul out close to where he is foraging.

Yesterday morning before dawn, two light-coated pups were resting in almost the same spot. Unfortunately, as daylight increased, so did their nerves. The first jittery pup scooted back down the rocks to get to the water, tumbling the last few feet before landing in the bay with a big splash. This prompted the other pup to follow suit, disappearing in a watery splat.

These pups, only 2-3 months old, are now on their own with no adult to protect them. There is certainly safety in numbers for newly weaned pups; while one catches a snooze the other can be on the alert, providing a more satisfying rest. In all, Seal Sitters responded to 4 pups in West Seattle yesterday, with 3 the day before. We are comparing distinct markings to determine if the pups on the rocks are new visitors to our shores and will update Blubberblog with our findings.

Spanky and friends still using the shore

PUPDATE: For three days following Spanky’s “rescue” last Saturday, he was nowhere to be seen along his usual stretch of rocky shoreline. However, we had noticed a pup resting each day on the offshore platform south of Alki Beach. Unfortunately, the pup was never in the right position to obtain a photo id. On Wednesday, however, we were able to get a clear shot and, to our relief, it proved to be Spanky - looking alert and somewhat annoyed at the commotion from the cormorants who shared the platform. We were happy that he had chosen a much safer haulout. On Friday afternoon the hotline rang with a report of a pup under the sea wall. Sure enough, Spanky had returned to his old fishing hole, where he managed a good long snooze, resting til after darkness fell.

Volunteers also responded to two pups at Lincoln Park this past week. As long as there is a food source to support the now-weaned pups, they will continue to seek rest on shore. Please stay alert as you walk the beaches of Puget Sound and make sure to give us a call if you come across a seal pup or other marine mammal.

Craggy rocks spell trouble again for Spanky

Spanky found himself in a bit of mischief yet again yesterday. He picked out a rock beneath the sea wall in the morning, intending to settle in for a nice long nap. Under the watchful eye of Seal Sitters and the public he was able to do just that for about 4 hours. However, mid-afternoon Spanky repositioned himself on the craggy, vertical rock. We held our collective breath, afraid we’d have a repeat performance of his fall deep down into a hole in the rocks some weeks ago. Spanky’s body dropped behind the rock, but he wiggled around and seemed to settle in, but was resting at a very strange angle (above right). Was he stuck? We couldn’t tell from our vantage point behind the yellow tape and the pup drifted off to sleep.

Not too long after, though, Spanky got restless and was trying to climb out of the hole, to no avail. He didn’t have the strength to lift his body out with such tiny flippers. We quietly sneaked to the edge of the seawall above him for a peak at his predicament. Sure enough, he had managed to wedge his rear end and flippers into a small, but deep crevice (photo left). After a quick discussion among ourselves about tidal concerns, it was decided that we needed to intervene. With the help of volunteers our investigator lowered herself over the sea wall and carefully traversed the slippery bolders to reach Spanky. A very calm Spanky analyzed this strange being who was now on the rocks next to him. Lifting him up out of the hole was going to be tricky without getting bitten. And Spanky quickly turned to defense mode when he realized what was up - twisting and biting at our responder in self defense. After a few minutes of finessing, she was able to get him under control and boosted him out of the hole. The pup rested on a lower rock at the water’s edge and then returned to the Sound, much to the relief of volunteers and observers. Both Spanky and the responder escaped unscathed.

We want to remind the public that only certain authorized personnel from the NW Marine Mammal Stranding Network are allowed to handle a seal pup. It is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to touch, feed, move or otherwise disturb a seal. It can also be a dangerous endeavor as these are wild animals capable of inflicting a serious bite. If you see Spanky along the sea wall, please remember to keep your distance for his safety and call Seal Sitters. This little one seems to have a penchant for trouble and we want to keep him safe and healthy.

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.

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.

Off leash dog scares Abe at Lincoln Park

Seal pup Abe returned again today to Lincoln Park for a rest, but narrowly escaped an off leash dog in what could have been a tragic incident. The hotline received a call this morning that a pup was on the beach. Our responder found an alert Abe at the water’s edge with a small crowd quietly observing from a reasonable distance. The responder quickly established a tape perimeter around him, but due to walking path issues people were still allowed far closer than the ideal. Abe became more relaxed and settled in for a quick nap, but as the tide came in he moved closer towards the walk and captivated onlookers. Still, people were very respectful of his need to rest and Abe slept for several hours nestled behind a log. However, one of our volunteers noticed a man and off leash dog approaching the area close to the beach; she asked him to please leash his dog as there was a seal pup resting on shore. Unfortunately, he did not. Suddenly, from the grass above, his black lab got a whiff of the unsuspecting seal pup and bolted straight for him. Abe barely managed to escape the dog - who even followed him into the water!

We plead with people over and over to please keep dogs leashed near the beach and to respect the city ordinance that dogs are not allowed on any public beach. A dog’s sense of smell is amazing - and one can just never predict how a dog will react when they discover a seal is on the beach. This is a good example of how a dog owner can overestimate the control they have over their pet and underestimate the pet’s reaction in these situations. The dog owner was apologetic. We were very lucky today that this seal pup was not seriously mauled or killed. Had Abe been ill or trying to heal from an injury, he would not have been able to escape. Abe did not return to shore.

Seal pup Spanky visited his favorite rock again today, but returned to Puget Sound at high tide.

Seal Sitters get a respite today after dawn to dusk days

West Seattle volunteers got a much-needed break today after ten straight days of dawn to dusk duties protecting Umbreon, Sly and Spanky as well as new pups, Noche and Abe. Umbreon (at left as darkness fell on Monday evening), who has been a regular visitor to the same small niche of rocks, spent most of today leisurely foraging and swimming a few feet offshore. He is a very dark pup when wet, but has a beautiful gray and white tweed coat when dry and distinct white markings around the eyes. Umbreon continues to be of good body weight and very alert to his surroundings and potential dangers. Most weaned pups become more wary of people as they get older and are more easily scared off than a young, unsuspecting pup.

Sly, who had been looking too thin and spending more and more hours on shore, finally returned to Elliott Bay early Tuesday morning. Since that time, he has not been observed on his favorite haulout rock. We’re hoping that his many hours of rest has given him the strength to forage and pack on some desperately needed pounds. A small white pup who could be Sly has been observed along with several other pups fishing and lingering in the waters nearby. As pups are weaned and become thinner, their immune system is suppressed, making them vulnerable to parasites and viruses. Small fish seem to be plentiful now around West Seattle and Sly could use a second trip through the buffet line.

Spanky, too, has chosen the relative safety of a rocky stretch of beach, but on the west side. While less accessible to direct threat by humans and dogs, his rest is most definitely disrupted when people get too close on the seawall above him. By definition, a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act includes any human disturbance which alters the behavior of a marine mammal. It’s important that we do our part to not disrupt pups whenever possible - sometimes a difficult endeavor when you have a crowd of people who are so enthusiastic at the very sight! Spanky has great body weight and appears to be thriving. Like most pups, he has a few nicks and abrasions, but nothing that appears of concern. He enchanted onlookers late Sunday afternoon as he perched on the tip of a rock surrounded by the brilliant blue water of Puget Sound. Eventually, a series of large swells swept Spanky off his roost (see video clip). Spanky has been one of our regulars and made a brief appearance today.

We have two additional newcomers: Noche who spent the evening on the south end of Alki Beach Sunday (our fourth pup onshore that day) and Abe who came ashore at Lincoln Park on Tuesday. This is one crazy pup season we are having this year - and the volunteers are loving it!

Pup-ulation explosion on shores of West Seattle

Seal Sitters’ volunteers are trying to catch their breath after a whirlwind of pups the last few weeks - a veritable pupulation explosion on our shoreline. Why are so many pups drawn to West Seattle? That is a question we’re all asking, including our NOAA stranding expert. Last year from August - December, we watched over a total of 33 different West Seattle pups. Of those, three pups spent 15, 17 and 52 consecutive days hauled out. There were a total of 15 pups from August - October 4th.

This year, from August - October 5th (yesterday), we have already surpassed last year’s five-month total: 35 different pups have now been observed and protected by our West Seattle volunteers! And October is typically one of our busiest months, so we can only guess how many pups we’ll have by the end of the year.

Our 35th pup is shown in the photo here. Nicknamed Spanky, this very robust and alert pup found a nice rock to rest upon before the incoming tide’s waves sent him swimming off into the Sound. This is just the kind of round pup with a thick blubber layer that we want to see this time of year, when too many are becoming thinner and trying to survive. Blacky, who has been using Lincoln Park for several weeks now, has become noticeably thinner the past two sightings. Seal pup Aquarius, who hauled out at Constellation Park for two days in a row, was rescued from that beach Friday, but died at PAWS. We cannot stress enough that seal pups need to rest and warm up undisturbed in order to maintain their strength and keep their immune system resilient.
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