February 20,  2009

UPDATE…Harbor seals are still
visiting seashore beaches


Although the cold and windy weather has kept fishermen away, there was one fat and happy visitor enjoying the beach at Cape Point this morning.

This visitor was a harbor seal, one of about 20 that have come ashore to rest and sun on seashore beaches this winter, according to Michelle Bogardus, a Park Service biologist.

“That guy is nice and fat and healthy and happy,” she said, although she noted that she really can’t tell if a guy or a gal.

Bogardus said the seal may well be one that was reported on a northern Hatteras Island beach yesterday but was never located. She thinks maybe he headed south to the Point.

The seals visiting seashore beaches, she said, are juvenile harbor seals, no more than a year to year and a half old.  Most hang around for a couple weeks to rest and sun and move on.

She thinks there are still about a half dozen, including several on Ocracoke who are hanging out together.  Harbor seals, she said, are usually solitary animals.

Holly West Smith of Frisco got a call from a friend this morning who urged her to bring her camera and head to Cape Point to see the seal.  Smith said she got going so fast that she didn’t realize she still had her pajama bottoms on.

She snapped plenty of pictures of the visitor, which you can see on the slide show at the end of this article.

Smith shot the photos with a new zoom lens, which brings us to Bogardus’ warnings about seals.

As cute as they are, you should never approach them or get close to them.  Looking and enjoying them is fine – from a distance.

By law, you must stay 50 meters, or about 160 feet away from this marine animal.

And closer interaction could be bad for the seals and bad for humans.

Bogardus said the seals can be stressed by too many visitors who get too close. That might cause a seal that needs rest for one reason or another to head back into the water before it is ready to.

And seals carry diseases that humans can catch – rabies and a very nasty strain of herpes.

If you see a seal on the beach, it’s probably healthy and happy, especially if it’s doing the “banana” – lifting its head and tail simultaneously.

If you are concerned about a seal, you can call Michelle Bogardus at 216-6892.

She would also like you to call her if you find stranded sea turtles, dolphins, or whales.

Click Here To View Slide Show

Letters To The Editor From  March 3, 2009

Seals on the seashore beaches

The seal in Holly's slide show looks wounded -- a hole in its side and a damaged flipper. What do you think?  Maybe not so fat and happy after all?

Applebachsville, Pa.

While I appreciate the pix of the harbor seal, is it me or does this seal appear to have some sort of puncture wound to its left side and if so was it reported to NPS?
As a sidenote, the IFP is great for those of us north of that notorious Mason / Dixon line.

Gardiner, N.Y.

(Editor’s Note:  The following is an answer to these questions from Michelle Bogardus, lead sea turtle and marine mammal biologist for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore:

Irene Nolan from Island Free Press forwarded me your comment about the pictures of the harbor seal at Cape Point the other day. This animal has been seen several times over the past week, and we have continued to monitor its health. The wound on the animal's left side was originally some minor cause of concern, but on closer inspection of the wound, it was found to be very shallow, and the decision was made to leave the animal in place. We generally do not interfere with seals unless we believe that they are in need of immediate rehabilitation. Additionally, the juvenile animals that we commonly see in North Carolina are prone to having scrapes, bruises, etc. This animal has good overall body condition and was behaving well (a good sign). Since these pictures were taken, the wound has somewhat healed, and has not affecting the animal's ability to feed or behave normally.)

January 30, 2009

Seals are the rock stars on wintertime beaches


Just because the beaches aren’t teeming with fishermen, surfers, and sun-worshipers this time of year certainly doesn’t mean they’re lifeless.  In fact, the seashore attracts some pretty interesting visitors in the winter.

Some of the most interesting, and by far the cutest, off-season visitors are the seals that come here to feed, molt, and rest on the beaches.

“There are seals everywhere,” said Michelle Bogardus, lead sea turtle biologist for the National Park Service, “and they’re really cool animals.”

Seals spend most of their time in the water, looking for food, and, not unlike human visitors to the island, they come to the beaches in search of a little rest and relaxation.

Most of the seals that stop here are young harbor seals, though the occasional harp, gray, or hooded seal will come along.

Unfortunately, just because they’re cute, doesn’t mean they’re friendly.

“I’m not trying to make anybody dislike seals,” Bogardus said, “but they are wild animals, they can be pretty aggressive, and they do pose serious health risks to humans and pets.”

If you get too close to a seal, it will bite you, and, according to Bogardus, they bite hard.

But it’s not just the pain of the bite that you have to worry about.

“Seals carry a particularly nasty strain of the herpes virus,” she warned, “and they can also have rabies,” both of which can be transferred to humans and pets through a bite.

Close contact with humans and pets is tough on the seals, as well. The seals that come here are effectively teenagers, Bogardus says. They’re often in pretty rough shape, and they’re usually looking for rest.  Approaching the seals causes them to go back to the water, and “coming in and out of the water a lot can exhaust them and diminish their health.”

Not to mention that, under state law, seals have to be put down if they bite.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t go seal-watching.  Seal-watching is completely acceptable, even encouraged, as long as it’s done responsibly. The animals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which requires that people keep themselves and their pets at least 50 meters from the seals at all times.

Bogardus says any seal that assumes the “banana pose,” where it lifts its head and back flippers off the sand and curls up like a banana, is a fat, happy, and healthy seal. It’s a playful pose and is ideally what you want to see. 

And while she stresses that it’s completely normal for these seals to look a little banged-up— bumps and bruises and cuts, etc.—any seal that has deep lacerations or fishing nets on it, or any seal that looks extremely thin or has deep wounds, should be reported to the Park Service.

It would be nice if all visitors were as cute, playful, and healthy as the seals, but, unfortunately, winter brings a lot of stranded sea turtles to the shore, as well.

Patrolling the beaches for stranded sea turtles may not be one of the happiest activities, but it's probably one of the most important. Sea turtles are one of the most mysterious and endangered creatures that visit these islands, and, since we know so little about them, every opportunity for study is crucial to our understanding.

Most of the time, though not always, the turtles that wash ashore here are already dead.  The Park Service reported approximately 80 strandings during November and December, with only 20 to 25 live turtles, and only three or four live strandings of the estimated 22 in January.

While finding live strandings presents some exciting opportunities, not only for education but also for the rehabilitation and release of the animals, locating all stranded turtles, including those that are already dead, is equally important.

For example, Bogardus reports, “We’re getting lots of Kemps’ right now.”

“The Kemp’s ridley is considered one the most critically endangered of all the sea turtle species,” she said, adding that recording and examining each specimen can help researchers gain a better understanding of the numbers and condition of the Kemp’s ridley population.

Park rangers and volunteers patrol the beaches for strandings each day, but Bogardus asks that visitors and residents report any and all strandings they happen to see.

Between responding to sea turtle strandings, trying to keep track of the harbor seals, and in just a few weeks, preparing for bird nesting season, the Park Service has a lot on its plate this time of year.

“Whoever said winter is a slow season was mistaken,” Bogardus said.

 (To report stranded turtles or concerns about seals, call National Park Service biologist Michelle Bogardus at 216-6892)

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