February 19, 2015
Arctic Seals appearance on North Carolina
beaches is a puzzling....WITH VIDEO
By JARED LLOYD
Coastal Review Online
the depths of winter, when the battle between light and dark sways
towards the night, when temperatures have plummeted to the lowest of
lows, when ice begins to reform along coastal stretches far to the
north, a most unexpected visitor arrives in North Carolina.
be quite honest, you probably have never heard about them or seen them.
This is not surprising, as they are something of a new comer to this
Old North State. Their arrival is unceremonious and often cloaked by
darkness. The odds of encountering one of these visitors are completely
stacked against you. Their numbers are few and quite often spread thin.
Yet each year, for a couple of decades now, they appear as if out of nowhere, and materialize from the sea.
pressure and low temperatures have coalesced to clear the night sky of
the humidity driven haze that typically hangs in the air. The stars are
incalculable this evening, glowing so brightly as to be seen above the
two beams of my headlights bouncing over the sand as I drive the beach.
Old live oak and red cedar stumps rise from the sand at the edge of the
sea, the artifacts of island migration and the constant change that
characterizes life on a sandbar – and very real threats to life and
limb when navigating this beach at night by vehicle. This is not my
first rodeo, however, having spent much of my life driving this very
same stretch of sand along the Currituck Banks.
Arctic Seals appearance on North Carolina beaches is a puzzling....WITH VIDEO
dark shape catches my attention beyond my headlights. With all of the
stumps around there are plenty of dark shapes to jump out at you, but
this one is different. This one is moving. This one is crawling out of
the ocean. I conclude that this is decidedly uncharacteristic behavior
for a stump, even for this time of night, and come to a stop in order
to get a better look. Hauling itself from the cold and wind churned
waters of the Atlantic Ocean this evening is an adult harbor seal.
is pretty new stuff. If you found yourself cocking your head to the
side and thinking that you have never heard of such a thing, then rest
assured this is for good reason. Thirty years ago, there were no seals
on these beaches. In fact, when we look back into the primary sources
of the annals of history, we find the record to be conspicuously empty
of any mention of seals at all. It has been since only around the
mid-1990s that these animals have begun making an annual appearance
— and quite frankly, no one has a clue as to why. But, there is
one person who is determined to find out.
Meet David Johnston of
Duke University’s Marine Lab in Beaufort. Johnston has that sort of
look you kind of expect from a biologist. A look that says, “I get paid
to play outside, so I am genuinely happy, content with life, and I have
the beard to prove it.” Come to think of it, that kind of sums up my
look as well.
Normally you can find this guy being tossed around
in a research vessel chugging its way through towering waves in the
southern ocean heading toward Antarctica to study seals. At other
times, his research takes him to slightly more ideal locations such as
Australia or Hawaii. But the day that he called me up and asked me to
meet with him to discuss a research project he had brewing inside his
mind, several months before I happened upon this harbor seal now
perfecting its yoga stretches on the half frozen beach in front of me,
David Johnston was sitting in his office on Piver’s Island in Beaufort
where he runs the Johnston Lab (not a coincidence in naming) and does
time teaching marine bio grad students for Duke.
at a table before an impressive spread of flat screen TVs on the wall,
all displaying one large continuous satellite image of a grey seal
colony along the coast of New England, Johnston began discussing the
need for getting to the bottom of why seals are starting to show up
here. You see, if we were just finding harbor seals, which are common
enough on the beaches north of New Jersey, this might be attributed to
a rebounding population thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of
1976. Though harbor seals do make up the bulk of the seals we are
seeing, it’s the other species, however, that are really beginning to
raise red flags.
in with the harbor seals are basically every other species of seal
found in the western Atlantic. Massive grey seals weighing in at 500
pounds are showing up in Kitty Hawk and Ocracoke. Harp seals and hooded
seals, both species that live and die by the pack ice of the Arctic,
are being found from Carova Beach to Cape Lookout. None of these should
technically be here – especially the pack ice seals.
few years back, I was working on a story about seals off the coast of
North Carolina for a magazine when I received a tip from the N.C.
Wildlife Resource Commission that fishermen were regularly reporting
seals in Oregon Inlet that year – especially around one particular
island. As of yet, no one had been able to make an official
investigation into this and I was asked if it was something I would be
interested in checking out. Naturally I jumped at the suggestion and
did what any sane person would do: I slid my kayak into the
hypothermia-inducing waters of February and paddled out into one of the
world’s most dangerous inlets in search of seals. What I was to
discover would ultimately change our understanding of seals in North
Paddling out to the island in question, at first I saw
nothing remarkable. Studying the shores from a distance with binoculars
I only saw what I thought to be debris washed up from a recent
nor’easter. When one of the logs got up and hauled itself back into the
water however, I realized that there was more to this log.
I had stumbled upon turned out to be a colony of adult seals – mostly
harbor, but with a couple harp seals thrown in for good measure. I
counted 37 adult seals hauled out on that beach, and in short order I
had other seals popping up next to my kayak to get a better look at me.
was not supposed to be happening. This is North Carolina, not Maine.
Yet, here they were. And these were not the juveniles that we have come
to expect. These were all mature seals, and they were literally
Talking with Johnston about this in his office, he
grinned from ear to ear. It was ultimately this discovery in 2011 that
put Oregon Inlet on the map in terms of seals, and it was right where
he wanted to get started.
“This feeding colony is the
southernmost known in the Atlantic, and very little is known about
the ecology and population biology of these animals. These are
important questions in the context of climate change, as these animals
are found at the southernmost limits of their thermal tolerance,” said
Johnston. Furthermore, “This area is also the focus of upcoming
construction which could impact these animals.”
construction that Johnston was talking about was the proposed
replacement of Bonner Bridge, which spans Oregon Inlet. This new
version of the bridge is to be built right over top of the island that
these seals are using. This population of seals is already being
labeled as the most endangered in the world. Just what exactly the
impact of such long term construction would have on these seals, nobody
This study is still in its infancy, and will most likely
take several years given the short window of time there is to work
with. Next winter Johnston and a team of graduate students will start
working with aerial drones, thermal imaging, remote cameras and video
to begin intricately piecing together the puzzle of these seal’s use of
the Oregon Inlet site.
is ultimately where I come in, as the team’s photographer and
videographer, and how I found myself sitting at Duke’s Marine Research
Lab across from Johnston discussing my experience with seals on the
Outer Banks and collaborating with one of the top minds in the field.
is a certain degree of urgency to this whole thing. The situation in
the north is changing quickly. Ice packs are changing. Fish populations
are changing. Puffin chicks are starving to death because the parents
can no longer find hake and herring – two species of fish incidentally
that many seals depend upon. The ocean is warmer. Less salty. And God
only knows what else. This is why when we see seals beginning to pop up
on our coast, especially those that should be lounging around on ice
flows, images of canaries in coal minds start dancing in the heads of
The ocean really is the last frontier for us. It is
a world apart from ours. Species that call the oceans home, play by a
different set of rules than we do on land, they are constrained by
different forces. Theirs is a world kept secret from us, hidden beneath
the waves of the sea, guarded by Poseidon. The story of these seals and
why they have begun to show up along our beaches is one small part of
this mystery. Hopefully it is a part that in the coming years we will
be able to shed light upon before our actions as a society dictate it
to be too late.
Lloyd is a professional wildlife photographer and nature writer.
Growing up on the Outer Banks, Jared has spent much of his life
exploring the barrier islands, pine savannahs, black water swamps and
sounds of North Carolina. These days his photography and writing carry
him all over the world from Africa to the Amazon, the Galapagos to
Yellowstone, but the lure of the salt life along the coast keeps
bringing him back to North Carolina. He lives in Beaufort with his wife
and son for easy access to blue water and uninhabited islands. This
article is provided by Coastal Review Online, an online news service
covering North Carolina's coast. For more news, features, and
information about the coast, go to www.coastalreview.org.)
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