In the late winter and early spring, the sea turtle volunteers from the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (NEST) turn their attention toward the pinnipeds who visit our beaches. Pinnipeds are marine mammals with fins for feet: seals, sea lions, fur seals and walruses. Those that have become regular visitors to the Outer Banks of North Carolina are the earless or "true" seals. They actually have ears, but they do not stick out of their heads as ours do or as those of the other pinnipeds do.
Seals have only recently become more frequent visitors to our beaches. We seem to have more of them visit every year. This year we have had over 25 different seals appear on our beaches. Just like us, seals must rest after they swim. They come ashore and "haul out" on the sand. They may stay on the beach for three days without eating.
All of these visitors come from northern waters. The hooded and harp seals come all the way from the cold Arctic waters. The harbor and gray seals come from waters off the New England coast. They swim in the cold Labrador Current and sometimes fail to turn around when they reach the confluence, just off North Carolina’s shores, where that cold water mixes with the warm water of the Gulf Stream. Since this is a quite recent phenomenon, we are wondering what is causing it. So far, the experts are stumped. Do you think it could be global warming?
Until this year, most of the seals we found on our beaches were pups, so we figured that they just did not have sense enough to turn around when they got to the warm water. But, this year, we are seeing more adult seals.
When these animals haul out they just want to be left alone to rest. There is a small dredged island (a man-made island constructed by digging up sand from the bottom of the ship channel) in Oregon Inlet called Green Island where as many as 30 adult seals can be found. This island can only be reached by boat, so the seals can rest there peacefully.
Oregon Inlet is the narrow channel that connects the sounds of the Outer Banks with the Atlantic Ocean. The island is on the sound side of the huge Bonner Bridge that goes from the peninsula of the Outer Banks to Hatteras Island. The picture in the right-hand Media Gallery is of the island, and was taken from a bridge that is quite far away—that is why it is not very clear. How many seals do you see on this island? In the picture of the swimming seal, he has left the island and is swimming in the channel, under the bridge and out to sea. Can you see his earhole on the side of his head?
The harbor seal is the one that we see most often on our beaches. He looks so cute and friendly with his big brown eyes, but he does not want to be bothered, and he has a very serious bite. All of the seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It is illegal to bother them in any way or to get closer than 100 feet to them. Our volunteers are called out to assess the health of the animal and protect it from people and people from it. We look for injuries—a fat seal is usually a healthy seal—and we monitor them for 24 hours. If we think they need help, we notify the Marine Mammal Stranding Team in Virginia Beach, Virginia and let the team take the animal in for rehabilitation.
All but one of our resting seals has been healthy and returned to the sea on its own. Only one needed human intervention. On 8 March 2011, an alert but thin gray seal hauled out in Corolla. Each time he came ashore we were more concerned. On 17 March, he came ashore for the fourth time. He was alert but seemed dehydrated. Luckily the Marine Mammal Stranding Team was at a meeting in the area and responded to the situation.
The volunteers captured the seal with herding boards (you can see he was not very happy about the human intrusion). After drawing blood and giving him two bags of fluid through an IV, he was crated and taken to the Virginia Aquarium. He remained there overnight, and then was transported to the Baltimore Aquarium in Maryland. He will remain there until he completely recovers from a bad case of pneumonia. Then he will be released back into the ocean. Since it was St. Patrick’s Day when he was finally captured, we named him Guinness.
|UPDATE [5 April 2011]: Guiness is still at the Baltimore Aquarium. He has been eating a lot, but he is still not gaining as much weight as the aquarium's staff would like. Overall, the staff is optimistic that he'll be rehabbed and released back into the wild sometime soon.
|UPDATE [22 June 2011]: While in Baltimore, researchers continued to see that Guiness was eating well but not gaining a lot of weight. After a closer examination, they found that he was suffering from a broken jaw. Veterinarians performed surgery and placed a wire in his jaw to help him heal. He had that in place for several weeks before it was finally be removed on 7 June 2011. The staff at the aquarium describes him as one of the most subdued grays they have ever worked with, so they will be sad (but of course happy) to see him off—hopefully on Friday, 24 June 2011. For more information about Guiness, please see the National Aquarium website.
The big seal with the large black spot on its back is a harp seal. This one was marked with pink paint at High Bar Harbor by the New Jersey Marine Mammal Stranding Center on the 23 February 2011. She immediately went into the water and was not seen again until she surfaced on our beaches 10 days later.
Harp seal pups are the pure white babies that seal hunters used to club to death in order to get their beautiful white fur. These young seals only stay with their mothers for four days before going off on their own. Thankfully, with the Marine Mammal Protection Act these seals are now protected from their worst predator—humans.
People are finally becoming aware of the destruction done to the other species of the world. Maybe someday we will realize we also need to protect our own species from ourselves. A world at peace should be the ultimate goal of all conservationists. To live in harmony with each other and all species would be the greatest gift we can give.
Overhead View of Green Island
Seals on Green Island
Seal Swimming Near Green Island
Harbor Seal Pup
Gray Seal Hauled Out at Corolla
Gray Seal Close-Up
Using Herding Boards to Capture Seal
Rehabbers Check Gray Seal
Gray Seal in Crate for Transport
Guiness at Baltimore Aquarium
Adult Harp Seal
Harp Seal - Note Pink Paint