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Strange seal pup season continues in West Seattle

The 2014 harbor seal pupping season in West Seattle has proven to be a rocky one. Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network’s (SSMMSN) first responders have totaled up 85 responses since lanugo pup Luigi was found on June 9th in the tideline on the busiest stretch of Alki Beach - across from the Bathhouse. Those responses included 24 positively identified pups and 23 dead ones (5 of whom died on the beach or in transport to PAWS Wildlife Center). This almost 50% mortality is the highest rate since volunteer David Hutchinson began keeping detailed response stats in 2011.

*Please note: In the wild harbor seal population, 50% mortality is considered normal for seal pups in their first year. In West Seattle, however, we have not recorded such a high rate in prior years.

A total of 112 responses have been made by SSMMSN first responders to date this year.

• 200 responses
• 70% of responses during pupping season (start date is the arrival of first newborn or weaned pup in West Seattle)
• 90% of all responses are to harbor seal pups

We haven’t had a pup reported onshore this past week, but a few have been sighted in Elliott Bay. The tribal gill nets, stretched out at great lengths across the Bay and Duwamish River, are always a safety concern for unwitting pups who can become entangled and drown. Seal Sitters rescued and freed one such pup a few years ago.

During turbulent weather, harbor seal pups often ride out storms by bottom resting - sleeping on the sea floor and rising every 20-30 minutes to take a breath. Once the weather calms down, pups often need to seek additional rest and, especially, warmth on shore. These thinner, weaned pups have no thick coat of blubber for insulation and energy.

Now that this most recent wind and rain storm has moved through the area, Seal Sitters volunteers (like JoDean at left) are standing by anxiously to help out -rain or shine - should a pup need protection on the beach.

Weekly pupdate: two seal pups onshore

This past week saw yet another two seal pups resting in West Seattle. On Sunday morning around 9am, a beach walker discovered and reported seal pup Libra (at right) at the base of Constellation Park’s sea wall. Covered in sea lettuce, the pup apparently hauled out at a very high tide. Libra rested until shortly after noon before making the trek across the now-exposed beach back to the Sound.

On Tuesday at Jack Block Park, seal pup Drifter was spotted by one of our first responders during a routine check of the beaches. Eilene noticed a small, white torpedo shape alongside some driftwood at the far end of the public area. Sure enough, a seal pup was zonked out there, oblivious and at risk on a beach notorious for off-leash dogs. The beach was quickly closed off and Seal Sitters’ scheduler for the day was contacted. Volunteers looked after Drifter in 2-hour shifts until he/she returned to Elliott Bay around 5pm.

Seal pup loss a reminder how vulnerable weaned pups are

“Bellissima!” the dark-haired woman exclaimed as she peered through the scope from behind the Protected Marine Mammal tape. Though the young couple visiting from Italy didn’t speak a word of English, no translation was needed as they oozed joy from the surprise sight of a seal pup snoozing below them.

“Beautiful” indeed was Pumpkin, who had unexpectedly come ashore during daylight hours on Wednesday, after having already spent a number of hours resting overnight.

Thin but alert, she slept throughout the day and crept higher up on the sand as the tide slowly moved in. Finally, in the afternoon a series of waves swept over Pumpkin and she swam off into the Sound, returning a short time later. She rested until early evening before swimming off once again and Seal Sitters volunteers headed home, but responders continued to monitor the area. Checking the closed beach at 8:45pm, she was still gone. However, Pumpkin was back again before 6:30am Thursday and was lethargic throughout the morning.

This increased need to be ashore was not a good sign for a thin, weaned pup - all of whom are struggling mightily this time of year. With dwindling fat stores for energy and warmth, each day is a battle between life and death. Sadly, around 1pm yesterday, this tiny white pup lost that battle and died at the water’s edge, trying to return to Puget Sound.

Heartfelt thanks to all of the volunteers who invested many hours to give Pumpkin the best chance we could to rest, warm up and try to gain strength, free from harassment and stress. And special thanks to the first responders who monitored the beach at Duwamish Head each night, closing the beach to protect her and removing the tape barrier at dawn when she was gone.

The passing of every seal pup - and Seal Sitters MMSN has had more than our quota of death this pupping season - is a constant reminder how terribly vulnerable these small marine mammals are, with 50% mortality their first year. Please, Share the Shore with wildlife - you might very well save a life.

Long days and lots of seal pups stretch volunteers thin

The past days have seen a whirlwind of seal pup activity in West Seattle. On Tuesday, Seal Sitters responded to a total of 5 resting pups, all in far-flung locations - from the southernmost neighborhood of our boundary to the northern point.

Four of those pups were terribly thin and desperately needed sanctuary on shore. Volunteers worked in shifts from early morning until dark protecting them. Seal pup Autumn at Lincoln Park and seal pup Mahina (Hawaiian for “moon”) near Cormorant Cove returned to the water overnight.

Seal pup Surfer (photo above) tried to rest in a spot just below rowdy ferry commuters who talked loudly and took photos. Our responder kept watch over Surfer, intercepting 4 beach walkers with off-leash dogs. Each person was strolling along the sand with mobile device earbuds firmly implanted, oblivious to their surroundings and their dogs running far ahead of them. Barely able to get their attention before it was too late, several dogs came within 15-20 feet of the pup. The last, a large white dog, came even closer before the owner restrained the excited animal - and Surfer was scared back into the water, wasting precious calories.

Seal pup Pumpkin (right) has continued to haul out each night at the same small beach, but yesterday surprised us with a daytime visit. We were finally able to get a decent health assessment and i.d. photos of the elusive pup. She has either changed her foraging patterns, but based on her thin condition, likely needs more time ashore to build up enough strength to forage.

Seal pup Seacil still hangs out on the rocky shoreline along Elliott Bay each day and night, in between foraging trips for tiny bait fish.

Over the past week, Seal Sitters volunteers have educated many, many hundreds of people about harbor seal behavior and our fragile marine environment thanks to these tiny ambassadors who grace us with their presence.

Seal pup entertains as volunteers educate the public

seacil-splash-wmA seal pup nicknamed Seacil has been charming passersby and volunteers for the past few days along the shore of Elliott Bay. The pup periodically snacks on what appears to be a bounty of tiny fish just offshore and then returns to rest on craggy rocks that comprise the seawall - usually just after high tide. Trying to snooze at the water’s edge is not always uneventful, however. Shown here, Seacil has hauled out at high tide, only to be engulfed in a series of waves from a freighter headed out into Puget Sound from the Port of Seattle. Undaunted, the pup held fast and then nonchalantly settled in for a very long nap. It’s hard to imagine complaining about a lumpy mattress when you watch pups trying to find a comfy spot to sleep on jagged rocks!

With several days of beautiful weather, Seal Sitters had an opportunity to educate many hundreds of people walking and biking the Alki Trail. Volunteers cheerily spread some blubber-love and distributed stickers to fascinated children. Finally, we have a vibrant pup to protect after such a dreary start to our season in West Seattle.

On Saturday morning, a second pup named Kazoo (at left) rested briefly on the same stretch of rocks along with Seacil. It was our first sighting of both pups.

Another highlight to the week was continuing to ensure that our little ghost of a pup, Pumpkin, is safe at night. She comes ashore after dark each evening, returning before first light. We have only seen the tiny white pup a few times, but always see her tracks in the sand very early each morning. Access to the small beach is closed off each night at dark and the tape is removed the next morning, after checking to make sure she has returned to the Sound.

Adult female seal chooses dangerous location to rest

As of Friday, a struggling adult female harbor seal continued to choose the ever-perilous Don Armeni boat launch as her resting place. Rising tempers from a few unenlightened and hostile fishermen added to the stress of Seal Sitters MMSN volunteers who attempted to keep her safe under the guidelines of the Marine Mammal Protection Act - and keep the peace with boaters at the sometimes busy ramp. We want to emphasize that the vast majority of fishermen who used Don Armeni during the days that Jellybean sought refuge there were generous and accommodating to her presence. However, it only takes an irate few to turn a difficult situation into a dangerous one for a compromised seal.

Volunteers like Lars and Ralph (shown at left), allowed the thin, postpartum seal to get some much needed shut-eye on the one closed dock. The opposite dock and lanes were wide open for boaters to launch and retrieve and rarely was there more than a few minute wait to do so.

Throughout the day on Thursday and Friday morning, we explained to boaters that a capture plan was being put into effect for the ailing seal. It was determined that for the safety of the seal, she would be captured, taken to a quiet location and given a health assessment. If her health was deemed poor, she would be taken to rehab. If her ailment was not serious, she would be given topical antibiotics or other treatment and released at a quieter, much safer location.

On Friday afternoon, a team from WDFW Marine Mammal Investigations along with two marine mammal vets assembled at the launch. Twice, attempts were made, but without success. A difficult logistical challenge at best with her tail half-draped over the edge of the dock, the seal was able to escape from the landing net. The positive outcome of this is that she seems strong enough to avoid capture, meaning she is probably healthy enough not to be a rehab candidate. Secondly, it should make her more wary to use a public boat launch as a resting place and realize that not all people have her best interests at heart. We hope she finds a more secure place in our area where we can help her rest and build up strength.

Seal Sitters volunteers have been monitoring the boat ramp area and have seen her close by. However, with all the boating activity of the sunny weekend and folks hanging out on the docks, she appears to be wise enough to keep a distance. We will continue to keep an eye out for her. Should you see a seal anywhere on shore, please call our dedicated hotline immediately: 206-905-SEAL (7325).

Thanks to all the volunteers who put in long (and sometimes trying) hours and kept Jellybean safe. You are awesome! And many thanks to NOAA’s Northwest MMSN stranding coordinator Kristin Wilkinson and to the capture team: WDFW’s Dyanna Lambourn, Erin D’agnese, Seattle Aquarium veterinarian Lesanna Lahner and veterinarian Jeanne Ross.

Volunteers protect three seals onshore yesterday

Yesterday was a busy one for Seal Sitters’ first responders and volunteers as we looked over three harbor seals trying to rest along the shoreline. First up at 5am was the discovery of a little pup snoozing on a small pocket beach notorious for early morning dogs. Our responder blocked off access to ensure the pup’s safety until he (or she) flop-hopped back to the Sound around 6:15. This pup (and possibly another) seems to be using this same beach under cover of night, returning to the water about the same time early each morning before sunrise - this according to tracks left in the sand leading down to the water’s edge. Yesterday morning was the first good look we’ve had of this very sly and mysterious pup, nicknamed Pumpkin, who was thin but moved without hesitation across the beach in search of a seafood breakfast.

Around noon, the hotline received a call about a harbor seal “pup” at West Seattle’s busy boat ramp. It was, however, the same thin adult female who has been hauling out on the docks off and on over the past few days. Seal Sitters has been monitoring the health of this animal who has an infected wound on her mouth and appears to be battling some kind of respiratory issues. Her ragged fur indicates she is probably just about to begin a taxing molt of her coat to grow a new, sleek one before winter. During molts, seals spend more and more time resting out of the water and less time foraging.

Launching and retrieving boaters have been very cooperative in letting her rest undisturbed. Nicknamed Jellybean, she is shown here enjoying the warm sun and checking out the boating activity on the opposite dock. In conversations with the fishermen, we have learned that fish stocks seem to be pretty bleak right now. The few fish that are being caught have empty bellies - with none of the bait or “forage” fish that harbor seal pups in particular favor. However, coho salmon which are returning to spawn do not usually forage on their journey, so an empty stomach would not necessarily indicate a lack of bait fish. But fishermen do report that there have not been many herring balls in our area - perhaps the underlying reason we are seeing so many struggling and terribly thin pups again this year - and higher than normal mortality rates for West Seattle.

Jellybean returned to Elliott Bay about 6:30pm and several pups were observed swimming nearby in the pastel blue and pink water. Perhaps one of those pups was the same one who unsuccessfully tried to haul out on the dock next to Jellybean the day before. Volunteers lingered to make sure the adult didn’t return. As the sun dipped behind Admiral hill, California sea lions cruised by close to shore against a backdrop of Seattle’s shimmering gold skyline - a stunning Pacific Northwest evening.

Very late in the afternoon, we responded to a report of a yet another seal pup resting on a beach on the west side. The small, cholcoate-colored pup was protected by volunteers until dark when the high tide crept in to close off access.

Thanks to our first responders and the many volunteers who enjoyed a day of sunshine, laughter and camaraderie, learning and, most importantly, the satisfaction of knowing they helped animals in need.

Woodstock love-in lifts volunteers' spirits

Seal Sitters’ volunteer and scientific advisor Buzz Shaw was out for a walk early this morning along the shores of Elliott Bay. He noticed a seal pup nestled halfway up the jagged rocks along the seawall and gave the hotline a call. First responder Lynn met him at the location.

The pup had apparently come up at the early morning high tide. Because of the cool, drizzly weather there were few pedestrians out and about. Eventually, however, it was necessary to set a tape perimeter to keep the several dozen curious people from standing too close, disturbing him and potentially causing a fall and injury. Health assessment photos taken with a long telephoto lens revealed some scrapes and nicks, but nothing significant that we could see - other than being much too thin, always a concern with often dire consequences. An image which captured a wide yawn revealed a full rack of teeth, indicating he (or she) was recently weaned.

The pup, nicknamed Woodstock by young SS volunteer Adrienne from Snoqualmie, was thin but alert to his surroundings. Around 1:45, Woodstock decided it was time to make his move back to the Sound rather than wait several more hours for the returning tide to reach his perch. He turned and promptly tumbled into a crevice behind a large rock (right). After a couple of attempts to climb over and around the barnacle-covered rocks, he managed to find his way out.

Seemingly uninjured, Woodstock quickly slid off into the still, gray water. Rain-doused volunteers were relieved to observe him actively splashing around offshore with another seal pup - hopefully, both foraging for the small fish that frequent the cove.

It was a lovely day with rainbows and soft rain, barking sea lions, cormorants and two beautiful little pups. Thanks to everyone for giving Woodstock some peace and love.

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 (SSMMSN) 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.

While there is indeed a 50% mortality in the wild for seal pups the first year, the percentage of Seal Sitters MMSN’s responses to dead seal pups just seems to be higher the past few years. We want to be clear that our numbers do not necessarily reflect Puget Sound populations as a whole and the harbor seal population is considered healthy and is not endangered. Other areas may have a more plentiful food source and more successful pups.

We did have high hopes for a bumper crop of healthy pups visiting West Seattle this year, based on reports from biologists observing moms and pups at South Puget Sound rookeries. Apparently, there was less predation, 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 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 rest and warm up, 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.

Sad ending for sweet seal pup along westside shoreline


Late Thursday morning, Seal Sitters’ hotline operator fielded a call about a harbor seal pup at Lowman Beach, a small public park along Beach Drive. First responder Lars found the pup resting just above the line of kelp that indicated the high tide mark (photo).

He stretched yellow tape between stakes and driftwood to create a safety zone and called the day’s scheduler, who began the process of lining up volunteers in 2-hours shifts throughout the blustery day. The pup was still sleeping on the pebbled beach when volunteers left after darkness fell that night.

The spotted pup was still onshore early Friday morning. We’re not sure if he returned to the water during the night or not. He did finally make the journey back to the Sound around noon and was seen “bottling” (a normal seal behavior, resting vertically with nose and head held just above the water’s surface) for some time and then vanished.

A comparison of facial markings from i.d. photos revealed that the seal was Plum, a frequent occupant of the offshore “Alki platform” (a considerable distance to the north at the west end of Alki Beach). Just over a week ago, Plum had come ashore on private property directly across from the platform to rest under the watchful eye of homeowners. He stretched and yawned and was on the plump side for a newly weaned seal pup. Thursday morning at Lowman, however, the pup looked decidedly thinner and lethargic. Volunteers were encouraged when Plum returned to the Sound around noon to forage, since a skinny pup’s health can slide downhill quickly.

Around 7pm Friday evening, the hotline received a report of a pup onshore at private property just to the north. In fast approaching darkness, first responders were able to identify the pup as Plum. Sadly, early Saturday morning we received a call of a dead pup just yards from where Plum was last seen resting.

Our responder carefully examined tiny Plum for injuries and clues to cause of death. The male weaned pup was shockingly thin, weighing a mere 8.15 kg (less than birth weight) - a far cry from the alert, semi-chubby one we had seen just a week earlier. Plum had numerous puncture wounds to the snout, head and flippers - similar to the puncture wounds of two other pups who died recently along this stretch. One of the punctures on the mouth was abscessed and perhaps caused difficulty foraging. With limited funding for necropsies, we can only surmise the cause of Plum’s death - certainly emaciation was primary. Without an internal exam there is no way to know if the wounds contributed to the death or if there were additional underlying factors.

Plum was marked with a biodegradable grease pen for identification purposes and the responder placed his body back into the Sound to nourish other marine life. Truly, this was a very sad day for us all.

Rescued and rehabbed pup Junebug goes home to the wild

We just received word that seal pup Junebug was released back home to Puget Sound on August 26th after a lengthy rehabilitation at PAWS Wildlife Center. He was sporting an orange flipper tag for i.d. purposes in case of future sightings, injury or illness.

The abandoned and estimated only 5-8 day old pup was rescued by Seal Sitters MMSN from West Seattle’s Duwamish Head on July 1st. He weighed only 8.6 kg upon intake at the Lynnwood urgent care facility. Junebug was a whopping 31.1 kg on release day (see photo courtesy of PAWS). The tubby pup was released at a known harbor seal haulout near Everett with the help of the Coast Guard.

Rehab for newborn seal pups - and weaned pups - is a lengthy process, as indicated by Junebug’s two-month stay at PAWS. There is no evidence that a fattened up rehab pup has greater odds of survival than wild-weaned ones. All pups face 50% mortality their first year and some would argue that a week-old rehabbed pup who has not been taught to forage in the wild faces even worse odds.

In late January of 2013, Seal Sitters’ first responder noticed a red tag on a pup resting near Salty’s on Harbor Avenue (rehab tags changed from red to orange in 2014). A check in the stranding network database revealed that the pup, whom volunteers nicknamed Ruby, had been rehabbed at PAWS and released in October of 2012 at a harbor seal haulout south of Tacoma. Ruby had made the long trek to Seattle and Seal Sitters volunteers watched over her almost every day - keeping her safe from disturbance - for the next few months at West Seattle’s Jack Block Park. She befriended another weaner pup nicknamed Buddy at the park, but they finally travelled on at the end of April.

The Marine Mammal Stranding Network would like to receive reports which include i.d. numbers of tagged seals, dead or alive. With respect to harbor seal pups, these reports are extremely helpful in determining the survival rate of rehabilitated animals.

Thanks so much to PAWS Wildlife Center and their awesome staff for giving Junebug a second chance at life!
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