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A Blue View: Seal Season

by John Racanelli, Chief Executive Officer

Published February 13, 2013

A Blue View is a weekly perspective on the life aquatic, hosted by National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli.

From the smallest plants and animals invisible to the human eye to entire ecosystems, every living thing depends on and is intricately linked by water.

Tune in to 88.1 WYPR every Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. as John brings to the surface important issues and fascinating discoveries making waves in the world today.

February 13, 2013: Seal Season

Click here to listen to John discuss the upcoming seal season and how to spot seals in need of medical assistance.

Seal sightings are rare for even the most frequent beach-goers to the Mid-Atlantic shore. In a typical year, about 20 are spotted in Ocean City, Maryland. Because seals prefer a cold-water environment, they tend to visit our area as they travel south from subarctic regions in the winter months and return north during summer months. Healthy seals regularly rest on land in a behavior called "hauling out."

This seal was spotted near 28th street in Ocean City, Maryland! Photo via Maryland Coastal Bays Program

This seal was spotted near 28th street in Ocean City, Maryland! Photo via Maryland Coastal Bays Program

If you're lucky, harp, gray, hooded, and harbor seals can be spotted on our beaches from late winter through spring. These four seal species are semi-aquatic, meaning they can survive for lengths of time both in water and on land. When seals are spotted on land, they are usually resting after long swims or warming up in the sunlight. Seals will also haul out on stormy days to wait out the rough seas.

Because seal sightings are rare, people often assume that a seal on land is injured or sick. Fortunately, there is a fairly easy way to determine if an animal is healthy. The key is to observe the animal's posture. When a seal is lying in a "banana-shaped" position with its head and body curved and facing upright, the animal is simply resting and will more than likely return to the water when it’s ready. Enjoy the sight from a distance, though, as seals are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and it is illegal to disturb them.

This is a "normal" banana position.

A seal lying in the normal, "banana-shaped" position.

If a seal is lying in a "bear rug" position, however, with its stomach and head on the ground, the animal is in need of further monitoring and, potentially, rehabilitation. In those cases, contact local authorities or animal control. It's important to remember never to approach a seal that looks like it may be in distress. Even though your intentions may be good, the animal will be under an enormous amount of stress. The animal may flee, even if injured, decreasing the chances that a rescue team will be able to help it.

sick seal

If you see a seal on the beach, give the animal lots of space, at least 150 feet, and avoid loud or sudden noises. Stay downwind from the seal if possible. Keep pets on leashes, and if you have to walk around a seal, walk on the land side to avoid blocking its path to the water. And never offer food to a seal—it's not only bad for the seal, but it's illegal and could result in a large fine. Disturbing the seal by making it change locations or flee back into the water is against the law.

The National Aquarium's Animal Rescue team works with local authorities and a network of animal rescue and response organizations along the East Coast to respond to reports of seals on beaches and animals that appear to be in trouble.

Our team of first responders is specially trained to evaluate an animal's health and behaviors. They are looking for any signs of injury such as entanglement, sores or abrasions, open wounds, bleeding, cataracts, dehydration, or emaciation. The team will determine the appropriate intervention for the animal, and may bring the seal back to our Animal Care Center for rehabilitation and later release.

If you see a seal that may be in need of medical attention, please call the National Aquarium's Stranding Hotline 410-373-0083 or Maryland's Natural Resources Police 1-800-628-9944. In a real emergency, you can simply call the local police or beach patrol, and they'll contact the proper authorities.

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