Team rescues wayward harp seal in danger

Wayward seal in need of rescue – simply in the wrong place.Throughout the year IFAW’s Marine Mammal Rescue and Research team brings on a number of interns and apprentices who gain valuable experience responding with staff to reports of marine mammals in distress along Cape Cod’s shores. In this post by our Response Apprentice, Kasi Gilbert details a successful rescue of a wayward harp seal that was simply in the wrong place, surrounded by busy roads and in danger of interacting with people, pets, or vehicles. – KP

Winter is harp seal season on Cape Cod and this year, these ice-loving seals from Canada are right at home, but sometimes their natural behavior of hauling out on snow and ice can get them into trouble when they get disoriented and do so in residential areas.

Late last Saturday afternoon on March 7, as the IFAW Marine Mammal Rescue and Research team was finishing up for the day and thinking about heading home, a phone call came through on the Stranding Hotline.

A young seal, first seen in someone’s driveway in Barnstable, MA was moving around the neighborhood. Unfortunately, the heavily traveled Route 6A is between the neighborhood and the nearest access to open water.

Seals are able to travel quite a distance from open water, but the animal could easily be hit by a car when crossing roads and in this setting it might be difficult for the animal to find its way back to the beach.

IFAW’s response team geared up and headed to the initial report location, but by the time we reached the house; the seal was no longer there - moving between houses and through backyards.

IFAW apprentice, Kasi Gilbert rescues harp seal from Cape Cod neighborhood.The seal settled into a small patch of woods between two houses and had temporarily stopped moving. Now was our chance! Adapted to cold climates, harp seals are well-equipped to move over deep snow.

Humans are much less equipped and as I walked toward the seal, I started sinking in knee-deep, slowing my movements. When attempting to capture an animal with sharp teeth and strong jaws, the last thing you want is to be stuck in the snow or have limited movement. We thought quickly and repurposed the crowder boards we had with us, which are normally used to guide the seal into a kennel, to keep us from becoming stuck in the deep snow.  I stepped up onto the board and crouched under the branches, carefully approaching the seal.

The seal rolled away, but not far enough to escape and I was able to put a towel over his head to distract him. We gently moved the seal onto the board and slid the seal out of the wooded area. Once in an open area, we were able to place him into a kennel.

After collecting the seal, we quickly discussed the next step. The seal was in good condition, well-hydrated, active, and alert and did not appear to need long term care.

He was simply in the wrong place, surrounded by busy roads and in danger of interacting with people, pets, or vehicles. We loaded him up in the rescue truck and transported him to the nearest beach - Sandy Neck.

At the beach, we measured and photographed the seal then affixed a flipper tag with a unique ID in case the seal is sighted again.  Once released, he scurried away without hesitation. We left the beach to give him some time to rest. When we returned a short time later, he was gone and all that remained were tracks to the water’s edge. It was another successful day!


Update: IFAW relocated a second wayward seal this past weekend. This one had not strayed as far inland, but had crossed over steep dunes and was near a road.  Our team also responded to and released a harbor porpoise on Sunday and a common dolphin on Tuesday. It has been a busy but rewarding week!

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Senior Program Advisor
Senior Program Advisor
Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
IFAW Veterinarian
Katie Moore, Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Loïs Lelanchon, Animal Rescue Program Officer
Animal Rescue Program Officer
Shannon Walajtys
Manager, Animal Rescue-Disasters
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy