Stranded Seal Pup in California
A seal pup during rehabilitation at the Marine Mammal Center located in the Marin Headlands of Northern California.
IFAW staff member Juliet Neal-Boyd lives in Northern California...she just sent this post in from the field...
Yesterday I found myself walking on a crystal clear day on Muir Beach in Marin County, California. It was a beautiful afternoon, and the far end of the beach was largely empty except for one other woman who was frantically on her cell phone. I have to admit I thought, “can’t you get away from your cell phone long enough to enjoy a little nature?”
As I approached I noticed there was a huge elephant seal pup laying still on the top part of the beach next to a path. I approached to check on it, but kept a distance so as not to startle or bother it. It rolled on its side, snorted, scratched its belly with its flippers, then went back to sleep.
I went to the woman with the cell phone to ask if I could borrow her phone to call the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands. The Marine Mammal Center here is widely known as the organization to call if you come across a marine mammal that might be in distress. They rescue and rehabilitate seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins and sea otters from Mendocino to San Luis Obispo. To her credit, the woman on the cell phone was calling someone who knew about seals, and was inquiring into the safety and welfare of the animal. Now I felt guilty for judging her talking away on her phone when I first saw her.
I did not know if this animal was in distress or not. In fact it looked quite content. However, after following up with Lauren DeMaio, Stranding Coordinator at TMMC, she said, “Whenever you see a marine mammal like that on its own, always give us a call, especially in a populated area. We can then assess what condition the seal is in, whether the behavior is normal, and whether a visit from TMMC is needed.” It turns out this was an Elephant Seal that was a Yearling, so this behavior was normal. They like to pull themselves out and take a rest for a while. However, if this had been a Sea Lion of the same age, this would not have been normal, and would have been a sign of distress.
When the woman on her cell phone actually called the IMMC, they reported that they had already been out to check on it and it was fine. This had been several days earlier, and had most likely returned to the sea. This was either the same one again, or another Elephant Seal resting in the same sandy cove.
What happened during the next three hours was heartbreaking. The beach grew crowded with the nice weather, and people began to swarm. I found myself running up and down the beach trying to keep people away. They would walk right up to it as if to pet it, the Elephant Seal would open its mouth and let out a gargling yell or arch its head backwards with its mouth open, and people would begin snapping pictures. The worst situation however was with dogs. All sorts of dogs would smell it and then beeline over to it barking. One large dog came down the path and began circling it about a foot away, growling and barking. The Elephant Seal was swiveling in the sand hollering, and clearly seemed very stressed. When I made it to the dog, I reached in and grabbed it by its collar to pull it back, and just then, the Elephant Seal lurched it’s head forward with its mouth open making belching, gagging sounds. It was clearly extremely unhappy.
One young man who had good intentions and felt sorry for the seal said, “let’s just pick it up and carry it back to the water so it won’t be bothered.” His heart was in the right place, but you never, ever, want to touch a marine mammal. They can easily get stressed, can be accidentally removed from their mother, and can bite something fierce. Come March, many Harbor Seal pups begin showing up along the coast here. When people see them alone, they often assume they have been abandoned. Some even pick them up to carry home or to bring to the IMMC. This is a huge mistake. The mother is usually out fishing, and when she returns, her pup is gone.
A call to TMMC led to an immediate check on the Elephant Seal again, posting of signs to leave the seal alone, and their contacting locals in the area to alert people to keep their dogs away until the seal had moved on. I was very impressed with their staff members on the phone, and was delighted to be talking with them given how several of IFAW’s staff had just visited their facility last week.
We had just had a series of meetings in San Francisco, and several folks from IFAW’s headquarters in Massachusetts, as well as a few from our Canadian office were gathered here (I am an IFAW staff member based in San Francisco). I had given the Marine Mammal Center a call because this time of year is quite intense for IFAW as we get ready to campaign against and monitor the annual seal hunt in Canada. Over 300,000 seals were killed last year in the hunt, so we thought it would be nice before we geared up once again to view a well run facility that saves hundreds of stranded marine mammals each year. It was indeed uplifting, and the tour their Director, B.J. Griffin, gave was indeed motivating and heartening. The snoozing and barking baby Fur Seal pups they were currently rehabilitating were enough to melt anyone’s hearts.
One last thought I will share before signing off… While all of the commotion was going on yesterday at the beach with the chasing of people, the snapping of pictures, the barking of dogs etc. surrounding the seal, there was one thing that caught everyone’s eye. Another elephant seal was in the water directly in front of the one that was beached. It didn’t swim back and forth, it just stayed stationary, head and chest bobbing in and out of the water watching the shore. Some assumed it was the mother, but TMMC said that Yearlings are no longer with their mothers at that point. It was there for literally three hours non-stop, and then finally left. I can only imagine what it was thinking. Was it also trying to come ashore and rest? Was it a buddy curious about what was happening to its friend on the beach? When I left in the early evening, I was a bit sad about all of the chaos I had witnessed surrounding the seal on land. I can only imagine what it seemed like from the vantage point of watching from the ocean.