Entangled Seal Rescue - North AmericaFind out more
Updated: 3 June 2021
Seals, also known as pinnipeds (Latin for “fin footed”), are marine mammals native to polar and subpolar regions, especially in the North Atlantic, the North Pacific, and the Southern Ocean. In the U.S., all marine mammals, including seals, are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. At IFAW's Marine Mammal Rescue team's base on Cape Cod, we are lucky to share our home with four local seal species. With so many sightings on our beaches, you may have questions about encountering these wild creatures. Find answers to your frequently asked questions about seals below!
Seals seen on land are not necessarily stranded or in need of help. Seals are semi-aquatic, meaning they spend part of their lives on land and part in the water. Seals “haul out” on land to rest, thermoregulate, molt, and give birth. However, some seals are indeed in need of medical attention and are considered stranded.
A live stranded seal is defined as:
When IFAW receives a report of a seal on the beach, trained volunteers or staff respond to complete a health assessment of the animal to determine whether it represents a stranding or simply a sighting of a healthy animal resting.
Seals typically strand due to illness or injury. Some young animals fail to thrive once they are weaned from their mothers, and others may strand already deceased due to natural causes. Over the past ten years, 10% percent of all seal strandings were caused by human interactions such as entanglement, vessel, strike, gunshot wounds, ingestion of marine debris, harassment and more.
Seals are intelligent animals capable of forming social attachments. However, seals encountered on beaches are wild animals that are not accustomed to people and dogs, and they could become aggressive when approached. Getting too close to a seal can cause added stress, and even be detrimental to its health. Humans should maintain the federally-mandated distance of 46 metres from any seal and keep pets on a leash—both for our safety and for the animal's safety.
Both seals and sea lions belong to a group of marine mammals called pinnipeds. While we don’t have sea lions living in the North Atlantic, we do have true seals, also referred to as earless seals that belong to a family called phocids. True seals have an ear hole but lack any visible ear flap. They have small front flippers and move awkwardly on land, flopping along on their stomachs in a caterpillar-like fashion.
Sea lions belong to a family called otariids, also referred to as eared seals, meaning they have visible ear flaps. Sea lions have large front and rear flippers that they are able to rotate under their body to walk on land. They are also more vocal than their less social seal cousins, and bark quite loudly. Sea lions are commonly found in the North Pacific and off the coasts of South America, Southwest Africa and Southern Australia.
No, seals do not need to always be wet. Seals haul out for a variety of reasons, including to regulate their body temperature and to molt (annual shedding of old hair). A seal on the beach is there because it wants to be. Pouring water on the animal will be stressful and cause it to expend more energy when it is attempting to rest.
Seals can stay out of the water for extended periods of time, depending on the needs of the individual animal. It can be completely normal for some species of seals to spend several days to even a week at a time out of the water.
Definitely not. Seals should never be offered food. Not only is it illegal to do so, seals could easily become ill or even dependent on humans for food. Seals are wild animals that can be aggressive and bite, causing major wounds and possible infection to humans.
No, a seal's body stores enough fat in their blubber layer to allow the animal to go for extended periods of time without eating. Most seals are opportunistic feeders consuming a variety of types of fish, shellfish and crustaceans.
Yes, most species of seals can be sighted alone. Arctic ice seals (harp and hooded seals) in particular will visit the northeastern US during the winter months, and they are almost always sighted alone. Often younger seals of all species like to be alone too. On the other hand, it is also quite common to find groups of harbour and grey seals hauled out together.
Seal pups spend a short amount of time with their mothers before they are weaned and completely on their own to learn to hunt and survive. Nursing time for moms and pups can vary depending on species. Harbour seal pups nurse for about four weeks, and grey seals about two and a half to three weeks. One of the shortest nursing times is found with the hooded seal—they nurse for four days before pups are weaned and on their own! Few seal pups seen on Cape Cod are still maternally dependent. Most of our young seals have already been weaned from their mother and are ready for life on their own.
Seals, as opposed to sea lions or walruses, inch along on their bellies when on land. They do not have the ability to rotate their rear flippers forward to walk on them. They also have very short front flippers that cannot support their bodies in an upright position. Seals normally appear quite awkward on land, and they may also choose not to use one flipper when moving. It is extremely rare for a seal’s flipper to be broken, and these animals often choose to favor one flipper if there is a small cut or abrasion present. Despite their awkward movements over land, they can travel far distances on shore and get back to the water when ready.
No, seals should never be covered. Animals use shivering as a means to warm the body, and it is a very normal process. Placing blankets or towels on a seal can actually be detrimental, as they must be able to control their own body heat. Blankets and towels can cause a seal to overheat, sometimes causing death. Shivering can also be a response to stress if people or dogs are approaching the animal too closely. If you observe a seal shivering, there is a good chance you are standing too close—step back and be sure to maintain a distance of 46 metres.
It can be very difficult to determine the health of a seal on the beach. Wild animals will mask disease to keep themselves from appearing vulnerable to predators. A thorough health assessment of the animal's condition—including behaviour, body condition, an external exam and monitoring from a distance—is the best way to tell if the animal is in need of assistance. Resting seals are usually monitored over 24–48 hours before a determination of its health is made, unless there are obvious signs of illness or injury.
The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 was passed by U.S. Congress to conserve marine mammals and regulate human interactions with them. This law mandates that people maintain a distance of 46 metres (about four bus lengths) from marine mammals at all times, including seals resting on shore. This regulation not only protects seals from stressful interactions with humans and their pets, but keeps people and pets safe as well. Seals can bite if provoked and may carry diseases that could be transferred to people or other animals. Be a responsible wildlife observer and use binoculars or a long-lens camera to observe the animal without disturbing its behaviour.
Keep your distance (46 metres) from the animal and use binoculars or zoom lenses to observe the seal’s behaviour. Call your local animal welfare team. Please do not touch or handle the animal as this will cause unnecessary stress and could further compromise its health.
One cause of 10% of seal strandings is entanglement in fishing gear, but wary seals are often too afraid to safely untangle. We partnered with The Marine Mammal Center in California to develop new techniques to rescue these seals, using safe dosages of sedative and innovative location tracking. Find out how you can help support seal rescue efforts.