February 1, 2008

Harbor seals are winter visitors to admire from afar


“The problem with seals,” says Cape Hatteras National Seashore biotechnician Michelle Baker, “is that they are really, really cute.”

The seals that have been hanging around on the seashore beaches this winter have tempted humans to get near them, to touch them, or even to try to hoist one into a truck and whisk it off for medical care.

Don’t do that, warns Baker.  It is illegal.  It is bad for your health and could mean the end of the seal’s life.

Baker says that right now there are three harbor seals, as far as park rangers can tell, resting on Hatteras beaches.

The first one was spotted at the end of December.  One hangs out mostly at Cape Point, while another has been spotted along the beach from Frisco to Hatteras village.  There was a third seal in the Rodanthe area that has not been seen for a while.

Baker says the three seals that rangers have observed are harbor seals, though other species do sometimes show up on seashore beaches.

The seals are most common on these beaches from November until March, though she says one occasionally is spotted during the summer.  If a seal comes ashore here in the summer, she says, it is usually ill or stressed and usually gets sent to seal rehab at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island.

The three seals that Baker and other rangers have observed, she says, are juveniles and are in good health. They have “hauled out” to molt, to shed their fur and grow a new coat.

Baker says that the nearest thing she can compare this molting process to is babies’ teething.

“They are grumpy and stressed,” she says of the seals.  “They need a quiet place to rest.”

Seals are covered under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 that prohibits people from getting closer than 50 feet to the animals.  That’s one good reason to stay away from the really cute harbor seals.

Another reason, Baker says, is that the grumpy seals are likely to try to bite folks who approach them and that they can carry rabies and a particularly vicious form of the herpes virus.  You might notice some blood around the seal’s mouth, which indicates that it has the virus, though, she adds, the seal is still fine and healthy.

However, a bite from a seal will mean a serious round of treatment for a human, and it’s also bad news for the seal.  State law, Baker explains, requires that seals that bite people must be euthanized if they are caught.
According to the Marine Mammal Network, harbor seals are one of the species of marine mammals classified as “true seals” and have no external ear flaps.  The true seals have small flippers and must move on land by flopping along their bellies.  Harbor seals have spotted coats in a variety of shades from silver-gray to black or dark brown.  They can reach 5 or 6 feet in length and weigh upwards of 300 pounds. Harbor seals are found north of the equator in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. They favor near-shore coastal waters and are often seen at sandy beaches, mudflats, bays, and estuaries.
The seashore’s Michelle Baker says that North Carolina is the southernmost range of the Atlantic’s harbor seal.

Most of the seals on the seashore, she says, will seek a quiet, deserted beach to haul out, perhaps in a resource closure.  However, the seal that has been in residence at Cape Point is obviously more congenial and doesn’t mind the company of humans.

“He’s a happy seal,” says Baker, who describes the “banana pose.”

“They raise their head and back flippers,” to look like a nice fat banana, she says, “and when that happens, they’re happy.”

The seals will continue to appear on the seashore until early March, Baker says.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration guidelines for seal watching recommend that people observe the animals from a safe distance of at least 50 yards, limit viewing time to 30 minutes or less, avoid making loud noises or abrupt movements, and keep pets on a leash. People should not try to force seals back into the water because they think the animals are in trouble or remove seals from the beach because they think the animals are sick or injured. 
The park rangers keep an eye on the seals and try to keep folks away.  Baker says that if you see a seal that you think is really thin or that has blood on parts of its body other than its mouth, call the Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 252-728-8762. The folks at the network will be in touch with Baker with instructions on the seal.  Baker says you can also call her at 252-216-6892.


Michelle Baker, who is the Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s head sea turtle biotechnician, says that this winter has been an especially tough one for sea turtles.

Since Nov. 1, she says, almost 80 turtles have been stranded at the seashore.  Most have washed up dead on the beaches, though Baker adds that five who were still alive when they washed up are in turtle rehab at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island.

Baker says it is unusual for so many turtles to be stranded on the beaches so late in the season.  In all of 2007, she says, 90 turtles were stranded on the seashore.  This year, there were 40 in January alone.

In November, she says, some had injuries that indicated that they might have had “interaction” with fishing boats.  But lately, she says, most turtles apparently have been killed by cold waters.

That theory is borne out, she says, by the fact that most of the strandings have involved green sea turtles, which are smaller are more likely to be affected by the cold water.  Other strandings have involved loggerheads and one was a leatherback, which is much more unusual in these waters.

If you find a sea turtle on the beach – dead or alive -- call Michelle Baker at 252-216-6892.  If the turtle has a spray-painted orange symbol on its shell, it has already been reported and checked.


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