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Keep wildlife safe - clean up the beach

Help keep marine life safe! On Saturday, June 24th (9:30am - noon), come on down to Alki Beach, grab a provided bucket and a pair of “pluckers” and do your part to keep the sea free of dangerous debris. We will meet at the Statue of Liberty Plaza (Alki Ave SW and 61st Ave SW) in West Seattle. RSVP is requested.

“Sentinels of the Sound” Beach Cleanup is co-sponsored by Seal Sitters with sister network Sno-King Marine Mammal Response.

For Seal Sitters, derelict fishing gear is an up close and personal issue. Once again, the cleanup will be in honor of newborn seal pup Sandy, who was rescued by Seal Sitters in August of 2011 and rehabilitated at PAWS Wildlife Center. After months of rehab, she was finally released back to the wild, but found dead 66 days later, entangled in derelict fishing line off the Edmonds pier.

The event is also in honor of the juvenile gray whale that died on Arroyos beach in April of 2010. The necropsy revealed only human trash in the whale’s stomach.

Did you know that n estimated 80% of marine debris originates from land? Or that 360 billion cigarette butts are discarded in the U.S. alone each year - all of them leaching toxic chemicals into the soil and waterways? Did you know that derelict fishing gear and plastics injure and kill many thousands of marine mammals and seabirds annually?

Learn more in-depth about the dangers of marine debris by visiting Seal Sitters’ website.

RSVP is requested to ensure we have enough materials on hand for volunteers.

ALERT: Seal pupping season now underway on outer Coast

Now that Washington and Oregon residents are finally getting a break from never-ending rain and cool weather, many will be heading for coastal beaches to enjoy some sun this Memorial Day holiday and warmer days to come. This is a reminder that harbor seal pupping season is currently well underway along the Pacific coast.

Pups are born a bit earlier in Oregon than in Washington. However, a number of pups have already been born along the Washington coast, from Long Beach to Moclips (and Wilapa Bay) and many rotund pregnant females (photo above) can be seen hauled out on sandbars and rocky outcroppings. For a map showing pupping seasons in the various regions of Washington state, click here.

Please be alert if you are strolling along ocean beaches. On beaches that permit motorized vehicles, be extra cautious - a tiny seal pup can look like a piece of bleached driftwood, easily run over and killed. If you come across a pup, please stay back and observe quietly from a distance. Contact the local stranding network.

It is normal for a seal pup to be alone on the beach - always keep dogs leashed and away. Occasionally a mother harbor seal will leave her pup resting alone, returning to nurse. Or, if a pup was born on a dock or raft, often the pup cannot get back up onto the structure with mom and will end up on shore nearby. If there are people and dogs too close, she may abandon the pup. Most times, however, the pup will accompany mom to learn how to forage. Once pups are weaned at 4-6 weeks, they will be all on their own, using shoreline daily to rest and warm up before returning to the water. Seals of all ages rest on shore about 50% of their day. Undisturbed, stress-free rest is crucial to their survival.

If you are boating, stay 100 yards away from harbor seal haul-outs, where large numbers of seals gather for safety during pupping season. A study has shown that passing boats and kayaks are less fearsome, but vessels that stop are likely to cause animals to flush from shore. Always stay back. If the colony is disrupted, newborn pups may be abandoned due to boating disturbance and harassment. Stay back as well from log booms, rafts and docks with resting seals.

It is illegal to disturb marine mammals. Harassment can be reported by calling NOAA Office for Law Enforcement’s national hotline at 1-800-853-1964 (information may be left anonymously, but details are critical for enforcement purposes).

In South Puget Sound, seal pupping season usually begins in late-June and extends into the first week of September. As pups are weaned in area rookeries, they venture off to surrounding areas. West Seattle’s busiest months for newly weaned seal pups are September and October, but over the past few years, more lanugo (premature) and newborn pups have been seen here in June. These newborn pups in urban areas, like lanugo pup Luigi, are highly likely to be abandoned because of human activity and off-leash dogs.

If you see a pup alone onshore, stay back and notify your local Marine Mammal Stranding Network. In West Seattle, call the Seal Sitters hotline @ 206-905-SEAL (9325). Click the links for a map of stranding networks in the Pacific Northwest: Washington map | Puget Sound map | Oregon map

Visit Seal Sitters’ website to learn more about harbor seals.

Feeding sea lions and seals is illegal, harmful and dangerous

The recent British Columbia incident where a California sea lion yanked a young girl off a commercial dock and into the Strait of Georgia has made international headlines. People had been feeding the sea lion bread (most decidedly not a sea lion staple food) minutes before the child’s clothing was grabbed; this, despite numerous signs clearly warning that feeding marine mammals was not permitted. The child, who had been perched on the edge of the pier at Steveston Fisherman’s Wharf, was quickly rescued from the water and did not appear to be injured.

Sea lions are curious, gregarious, lively, loud and large (up to 1000 lbs). It goes without saying that they are wild animals and, as such, are unpredictable in their behavior. The blame for this unfortunate occurrence in Canada does not lie with the sea lion, who likely mistook the child’s light-colored dress for fish.

The high-profile story has raised public awareness about the hazards this type of feeding interaction poses to humans, but the dangers to marine mammals must not be overlooked.

It is illegal to feed marine mammals in the wild, both in Canadian and United States waters. Marine mammals are protected by U.S. Federal law, Marine Mammal Protection Act, from harm by humans. If you feed or attempt to feed a marine mammal in the wild you put yourself and the animal at risk of injury and may be investigated by NOAA’s Office for Law Enforcement (OLE) for marine mammal harassment.

There are many potential consequences to feeding wild animals. Altering a seal or sea lion’s behavior can prove harmful by interfering with their ability to hunt and feed. If conditioned to approach people and vessels for food, they are at increased risk of injury and death. Marine mammals are wild animals that normally feed on live fish that they hunt and catch on their own.

Feeding marine mammals can cause them to lose their natural wariness of humans or boats and condition them to beg for handouts instead of foraging for their normal prey. They can become sick if they eat food that is spoiled or food that is not part of their normal diet, or they can get injured if they are too close to boats. They may also begin taking bait and catch from fishing gear, risking injury or death by entanglement in or ingestion of fishing gear.

There have been cases of people being bitten by dolphins and sea lions that become aggressive while begging for food, being teased with food by people, or expecting a handout.

Help keep marine mammals safe - and wild. If you observe someone feeding a seal or sea lion, please call OLE’s national hotline at 1-800-853-1964 (information may be left anonymously).

UPDATE 5/28/17
At the urging of marine mammal specialists in media posts, the family was encouraged to seek medical treatment - and did - for mild abrasions suffered in the incident, as bacteria and disease can be transmitted by contact with marine mammals.

Harbor porpoise necropsied today

(post updated at 5:58pm)

Brand new Seal Sitters (SSMMSN) volunteer Judy, trained this past Saturday, was out for a hike near West Seattle’s lighthouse yesterday afternoon when she came across a fresh-dead harbor porpoise on the pebbled beach. Having just learned that SSMMSN responds to reports of all marine mammals, dead and alive, she contacted the proper authorities and SS First Responder Lynn arrived on scene, shortly after our hotline @ 206-905-SEAL (7325) received the report.

Cascadia Research Collective was immediately called and confirmed they wanted the porpoise for necropsy. First Responders Robin, David and Ralph arrived and photos were texted to Jessie Huggins, stranding coordinator for Cascadia. Based on initial review of photos sent by Seal Sitters, it appears the adult female is either pregnant or recently gave birth. Plans were set in motion for biologist Erin Keene and a former intern to drive a truck up from Tacoma to collect the perfect specimen.

With the help of several members of the public (also environmental stewards), the approximately 125-150 lb porpoise was rolled onto a tarp, carried off the beach and up into a private driveway, where she was picked up by the Cascadia team shortly after 6pm. Thanks so much to homeowner Margaret who allowed us access thru her property, making the transfer off the beach much shorter and kudos to those who helped carry the heavy porpoise.

The stunning porpoise showed no obvious injuries, aside from nicks on flippers. Possible predation by transient orcas is always a concern, especially with the recent heightened transient presence in Central and South Puget Sound, and internal hemorrhaging from such an attack could still be present (often times, prey is rammed and not consumed). However, it seemed more likely that cause of death was related to pregnancy complications or disease.

In the Pacific Northwest’s Salish Sea, harbor porpoise calving typically occurs in the summer months. On May 1, 2013, SSMMSN responded to a dead neonate on the shoreline along Beach Drive. Harbor porpoise numbers have greatly rebounded in Puget Sound, after nearly disappearing in the 1970s. Cascadia and WDFW Marine Mammal Investigations collaborated on a study of 20 year aerial surveys of Washington waters. Read more about the species’ return in this recent paper. An additional resource can be viewed here on NOAA’s website.

The necropsy was performed by Cascadia today. The female was indeed pregnant, but probably a month or two away from full term. There was no trauma or evidence of pregnancy complications, but an underlying disease that may have caused early termination of pregnancy can’t be ruled out. Neurological disease is suspected and will be further evaluated histologically. A moderate lungworm infection was found, which is fairly typical for this particular species, but can also be a symptom of a more significant disease process.

Tired, but sneaky little weaner seal seeks resting spot

It’s a real challenge for wildlife to find quiet, safe places to rest undisturbed along the shoreline of urban areas. Monday morning was no exception. Very early, the hotline received a call about another weaner seal on the beach, just south of the West Seattle Water Taxi. Arriving within minutes, Seal Sitters first responder found a very wet little seal taking a power nap on the pebbled shore. Tape was stretched between cones and sandwich boards to establish a smaller-than-normal buffer zone around him since the beach was just below the sidewalk.

Having barely finished taping off the area and grabbing a couple of quick identification photos, the increasing bustle of ferry commuters convinced the weaned and estimated 9-month old seal to return to the blue-gray waters of Elliott Bay. Gathering up materials, responders discussed that this was not Seafoam or another weaner we recognized.

No sooner had stranding materials been stashed back in the car, the hotline received a second call - of a seal pup perched a stone’s throw away, around the corner on the rocks just below the fishing pier and ramp down to the Water Taxi (two views of same weaned pup above). Cones and tape were stretched again to keep people from standing right above him. Within about half an hour, however, with a receding tide and a steady stream of commuters who walked close-by, down the ramp to catch the boat and head into downtown Seattle, the weaner slipped off the jagged boulder and into the water. It was unanimous that the perfect nickname for the seal was little Rascal.

Responders removed the materials and observed Rascal for some time, lingering offshore in the tiny cove - a good fishing hole, ripe for foraging.

Volunteers spend long hours protecting Seafoam

Seal Sitters volunteers spent very long days, from early morning til late in the evening, ensuring that a visiting harbor seal could get rest over a 3-day period this past weekend.

On Friday afternoon, First Responders David and Eilene were out for a walk along West Seattle’s Alki Trail and noticed a group of bystanders gathered on the seawall above a small pocket beach and common spot for seal pups to come ashore. Thankfully, barricades and tape were stashed at the site. They quickly asked the crowd to step back and cordoned off the small area. Volunteers were summoned and the pup was able to rest on the beach until very late that night, gone shortly after midnight.

This weaner, nicknamed Seafoam, looked quite typical for the majority of seals born last year and now almost a year old: thin and with some respiratory issues (nasal and eye discharge and some coughing), after surviving a very long, wet and cold winter. The good news is that a milder spring brings a more bountiful food source to Puget Sound and lungworm infections, if not too serious an infestation, can sometimes wane.

These older weaners will soon be molting, afterwards sporting a brand new, silky coat. These days, the coats become brownish, scruffy and lackluster in the pre-molt and then it’s out with the old, gradually filled in with new shiny fur and well-defined markings. Weaners/yearlings are the first seals to molt. Adults in Central and South Puget Sound do so after breeding in the summer and early fall. Fur does not provide warmth for harbor seals, who instead depend on a thick layer of blubber fat for insulation energy.

Early Saturday morning, Seafoam crawled onshore again, but this time further east, around the bend on a little strip of beach in Elliott Bay. Staying until high tide erased the beach and water rushed over him, the seal took off and headed north. Gathering up cones and tape, volunteers walked along the seawall, following Seafoam as he traversed back to his prior evening’s resting spot.

Once again, volunteers taped of the grassy landing above the seal and closed access to the beach steps. Families, joggers, bikers and walkers all paused to talk to volunteers and get a great, close-up view of the sleepy seal, trying to snooze in the midst of a noisy whirl of urban activity. Many inquired if it was seal pup Taffy, now in rehab at PAWS Wildlife Center. Seafoam rested until 8:30pm before returning to the dark waters of the Sound.

Around 8am Sunday, the hotline received a report of a pup on the west side, below Alki Avenue’s sea wall. When First Responder Robin arrived she could see the seal’s tracks in the sand, leading from the seawall to the lapping water’s edge - and human footprints leading up to and across to the resting site. There was no seal and no person. She stopped a young couple walking by and asked if they had seen the seal. They stated that a woman had been down on the beach, too close to the seal and taking cell phone photos. Despite their warnings that she needed to stay back, she scared him back into the water.

Seafoam showed up less than an hour later on the opposite side of the point, with a repeat performance of the day before: sleeping at the Elliott Bay location until high tide and then swimming back to his second preferred location at Duwamish Head. Because it was a beautiful day, there were people on the pocket beach, but they graciously vacated the area to allow the determined little seal with the big, soulful eyes some additional rest.

Volunteers protected Seafoam until after 9pm, when he finally flip-flopped across a very long stretch of sand and disappeared into the Sound. He has not been sighted since.

Thanks to the first responders and dedicated volunteers who spent three long days - and windy and cold evenings - looking after Seafoam. They spoke with hundreds of people who stopped by the two locations to ooh and ahh and learn about seal behavior and biology and the many struggles that weaner seals face their first year of life.

Seal pup captured at last and taken to rehab

After waiting weeks for an opportune moment to capture injured and ailing, but also alert and wary, seal pup Taffy at Alki Beach, Seal Sitters first responders were finally given a realistic chance yesterday. Over the past days, Taffy had become more lethargic and would occasionally rest and close her eyes.

Taffy showed up earlier than expected on Saturday morning, well before her favorite triangular rock was exposed by the waning tide. First Responder Robin was down on the early side, coffee thermos in hand, just in case the little trickster needed an earlier rest. She peeked over the sea wall and lo and behold, the silvery pup was already tucked into a nook between the large charcoal-colored boulders.

While extending the tape perimeter on the beach, a text was sent to the usual Taffy early morning crew of Lynn, David, Nicole and Buzz with the message “Taffy onshore now!” Nicole stopped by, but was on her way to work. Just in case we needed volunteers for the day, Volunteer Scheduler Denise was notified, who checked the online calendar and started dialing. As soon as Lynn arrived, Robin realized the fleeting opportunity to capture the pup was finally here - NOW. Taffy was in the perfect position behind a rock, about 5 feet from the water, and there was no time to wait for help; she could crawl out into full view in minutes and we would have missed our chance yet again. Thankfully, due to the early hour and overcast, the surrounding area was not yet busy with walkers and runners.

Lynn and Robin grabbed the net and kennel from the car, donned heavy gloves and scrambled down onto the sandy beach. Creeping in and out along the base of the sea wall, crouching behind rocks so Taffy couldn’t see their approach, they inched closer to her. Finally, swinging out onto the open beach, they managed to get a pole net on her just as the pup saw them and bolted for a getaway.

As soon as the Taffy was secured in the net, Lynn dashed back down the beach to grab the kennel.

Now, the real fun began as the responders fought to get a biting, wriggling, strong and not-so-happy older and bigger seal pup transferred from the large salmon landing net into the kennel without injuring Taffy - and not losing a finger or arm in the process. After a few hair-raising minutes, she was latched inside the kennel. Robin caught the attention of a man walking up along the sea wall. Bill enthusiastically jumped down to help lug the kennel across the sand, back up and over the high wall and into a car for transport to PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood for stabilization, assessment and, hopefully, rehabilitation.

Thanks to those Seal Sitters responders and volunteers who did their best to protect Taffy over the course of 4 weeks at a busy urban location. It was a challenge to keep her safe from off-leash dogs, especially as her health declined and her haul-out schedule became more unpredictable. Thanks also to all the caring folks who stopped by almost daily to inquire about her.

4/30 morning: We are awaiting further information from PAWS after a more extensive veterinary exam is performed today, but the good news is that Taffy has been stabilized with fluids. She has a number of issues, including her flipper wounds (see earlier posts).

Thanks to PAWS’ dedicated staff for treating Taffy. We will keep you posted as we learn the cause of periodic bloody mucous from the mouth and coughing (likely lungworm infestation) and her numerous health concerns.

Taffy continues to come ashore almost daily, health declining

For over 4 weeks now, seal pup Taffy has come ashore almost daily at West Seattle’s Alki Beach. Taffy’s schedule has become less predictable as her health declines. She is battling not only injury to her fore flippers, but has been showing signs of respiratory issues with increased coughing jags. It’s a tough start to life for harbor seal pups, who only have a 50/50 chance of surviving their first year, due to a number of factors including parasitic viral infections.

Unfortunately, chances for capture - and rehabilitation - have been challenging to say the least due to the limited access location, Taffy’s hyper-awareness of any and all activity around her, and the fact that she is almost always just a few feet at most from the water’s edge. An older pup, estimated about 8 months old, she is more worldly and much more aware of the dangers around her than newly-weaned pups (on their own at 4-6 weeks old) who will begin arriving to Seattle’s shoreline in August thru October. Taffy has been scared into the water numerous times at Alki.

Seal Sitters First Responders hope to have a better chance at capture as she becomes more lethargic. Today, Taffy rested a bit too long onshore at a very low tide and had an arduous trip across two sandbars, forcing her to use her fore flippers, to get back to open water.

Help protect marine mammals - attend a training

Join Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network! Volunteers are not only vital for the protection of seal pups and other marine mammals. Now in our 11th year, we also perform a public service by providing education about marine life and our fragile marine ecosystem to local residents and visitors from around the world.

Seal Sitters MMSN holds several special trainings a year for those wanting to protect marine mammals along the shoreline of West Seattle and the Duwamish River.

We are a very active network and have volunteers who travel from around the area to participate. However, if you live out of the West Seattle area and would like to find a stranding network closer to where you live, click here.

*Please note:
Every stranding network requires their own unique training -
attending a Seal Sitters MMSN training does not qualify you to volunteer for networks in a differing location.

Unlike most marine mammal stranding networks, we encourage children to participate in Seal Sitters - supervised at all times, of course, by a parent or guardian. We are so proud of our amazing and dedicated volunteers who are on duty rain or shine - we hope you will join us!

A multi-media presentation will illustrate our educational work in the community and the unique challenges of protecting seals and other marine mammals in an urban environment. Included in the training is an overview of NOAA's West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network and biology and behavior of seals and other pinnipeds (due to time frame, supplementary sessions will include more marine mammals of Puget Sound).
SATURDAY, MAY 13, 2017
10am-12pm (doors open at 9:30am, training starts promptly at 10)
*please arrive early to receive paperwork

(*there is no church affiliation with Seal Sitters MMSN)
front meeting room
6115 SW Hinds St
West Seattle (map it here)

RSVP required to attend. (*please include full name and name/ages of children)

*PARENTS PLEASE NOTE: all children in attendance must be able to sit quietly through an approximate 2 hour training session with a short break.

For additional questions and info or to be placed on a contact list for future training opportunities, please email us.

Seal pup decides to mix things up

After lulling Seal Sitters first responders into a sense of regularity over the past week, seal pup Taffy pulled a fast one and showed up early! Instead of hauling out during high tide yesterday, she came around 9am - a good four hours sooner than expected.

Once again, vigilant volunteer Nicole was the first to spot her, thru binoculars from her home well south of the tape perimeter, left standing to make beachcombers aware of Taffy’s daily comings and goings. Dashing to the beach, Nicole guarded the area while FRs Lynn and Robin checked the seal’s health from a distance with binocs and a long telephoto lens. They looked for bloody mucous from the mouth, seen on previous days and a sign of parasitic lung issues, and were relieved to see nothing unusual.

On a dark gray morning and in a heavy downpour, Taffy stretched her rear flippers and tail up in the air, circulating warmth thru her body. Like always, she was alert to our presence far down the sea wall. As she settled in on the fine sand beach, Volunteer Scheduler for the day Karin began checking the online calendar to see who was available to lend a hand for the day.

Unless absolutely necessary, the seal pup continues to avoid using either fore flipper. Taffy left the beach several times around 12:30 pm after a series of waves crashed over her with the incoming high tide, but returned within minutes each time. Finally, around 1pm, she gave up and swam out into the flat silver water - just as the sun came out and crowds of people (and off-leash dogs) started to appear. While Taffy was still onshore, a man with two off-leash pitbulls threw a ball for his dogs near the perimeter.

Though the pup never seems to get any real sleep or calm rest, she didn’t seem quite as anxious yesterday - likely due to the few people out in gloomy weather. Many thanks to Nicole, Colette, Owen, Sarah, Jonel and Dave for protecting Taffy. As usual, Karin did a great job lining up volunteers. Molly arrived just as Taffy was leaving, but stayed until 4pm, knitting in her car and keeping an eye on the beach just in case the pup returned for some more rest.

Now that Taffy has decided to mix things up as far as hauling out, it will be more of a challenge to keep her safe on the beach.

Seal pup Taffy as predictable as rain in Seattle

Rain, rain, rain. Taffy, Taffy, Taffy. That pretty much sums up the last days for Seal Sitters volunteers, who continue to provide protection for the seal pup attempting to rest in West Seattle. First Responders are just about as bedraggled as our ragged yellow tape perimeter that has been taped and re-taped along Alki Beach and the adjacent Puget Sound seawall almost daily for going on two weeks now.

Taffy has been exhibiting signs of some health issues which we are monitoring closely. She is becoming thinner and is dehydrated. Because the active pup continues to be on high alert, very aware of any happenings around her, she gets no real rest. Taffy sticks close to the tideline, so capture poses challenges, but we are on standby should the opportunity - or need - presents itself. It is always in the best interest of a seal pup to remain in the wild whenever possible and avoid the stress of handling. If her health declines, she will require more time onshore.

While we cannot see any obvious wounds, the pup is reluctant to use either fore flipper. This makes her quite vulnerable when on land - even more so than the usual lack of mobility seals have out of the water. Unlike sea lions, they cannot rotate their hind flippers for locomotion and, instead, wriggle on shore in a caterpillar-like motion (click here to see a video of harbor seal locomotion). The danger of harassment, injury or worse from off-leash dogs at this beach continues to be a major concern at this location.

Throughout yesterday morning, volunteers made regular jaunts to Alki, looking for the weaned pup at her small chosen corner of sandy beach, even though she typically hauls out after high tide. Around noon, just before high tide, volunteer Nicole (shown in green jacket in photo above, along with First Responder Lynn) peered thru binoculars, out her beachfront apartment window, and spotted Taffy flopping ashore. Nicole sent out a quick text “Taffy on beach” as she and partner Eric hopped on their bicycles and headed the seal pup’s way.

First Responders Lynn and Robin quickly arrived to tighten up the tape perimeter on the seawall and extend the tape on the open beach just south. A creature of habit, Taffy was barely visible, nestled next to her favorite rock below the wall.

Many thanks to volunteers Molly, David, Kate, Betsy, Eric, Nicole, Jonel, and Jennifer who, in two-hour shifts and often pouring rain, talked to passersby. Young Seal Sitters stewards Yma and Didi did an impromptu beach cleanup while on duty.

Taffy returned to the Sound shortly after 5pm and is expected to return today.
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