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Have You Spotted a Seal? Meet Maryland’s Winter Visitors - October 29, 2017

As the cold weather begins to set in, many of our migratory visitors begin their seasonal pilgrimage. Flocks of various bird species can be seen gathering and flying over our Coastal Bays, some leaving, others coming.

Many migratory visitors that travel through our waterways go unnoticed by us. One winter visitor however, we will begin to see very soon: our beloved seals.

Seal sightings in Delmarva, both in the bays and ocean, are a normal occurrence during the winter months. Seals are semi-aquatic animals, which means they spend a portion of each day on land. Seals need to “haul out” for a variety of reasons; to rest, pup, or molt (shed). Young seals may haul out for up to a week. The seals we see on our Delmarva beaches are typically young seals that have come ashore to rest or because they are in distress.

Although seals are not typically thought of as a local species, they probably have been visiting longer than we think. The Maryland Coastal Bays Program (MCBP) partnered with the Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP) seven years ago and created a program to provide public outreach regarding seals and their natural behaviors. Through these programs, we learned that the majority of residents had no idea seals were migratory visitors; however, there were a few residents that had a seal encounter. One encounter was in the ocean while surfing and the other was in the bay while duck hunting; both encounters occurred in the 70s.

Since 2011, seal sightings have become more common in our estuary which means human encounters with seals are becoming more common as well. Seals have an appealing, even adorable, presence and appearance. Like the Assateague Ponies, one can’t help but want to get closer to touch or feed them. But, human contact does more harm than good. Seals are large, wild animals and can be extremely dangerous. They will bite, and serious infections can be transmitted to you or your pet. Seals can carry viruses such as herpes and rabies. Should a seal happen to bite a person or dog, the seal will have to be destroyed to ensure the seal did not have rabies.

Increased contact with people eventually leads seals to habituate to humans. Habituated seals are more likely to suffer from negative human interactions and are less likely to avoid dangerous situations. For instance, feeding seals encourages them to approach boats looking for handouts. This behavior has resulted in injuries from boat propellers.

Seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). It is against the law to touch, feed, or otherwise harass seals. Harassment occurs when your behavior changes their behavior. The rule is to keep at least 40 yards away, about four car lengths, to give them their space. Avoid being noisy and report a seal haul out to MARP by call 410-576-3880 or 1-800-628-9944.

If you are fortunate to be out on the water this winter, please keep your eyes peeled. Seals are likely to surface unexpectedly. If you see any on an island, please stay at least 50 yards away. This goes for non-motorized vehicles as well. Close approaches should be avoided as they may elicit an alarm response, causing seals to rapidly enter the water. An exhausted seal is vulnerable to predators and illness. It is also suggested to limit viewing time to 30 minutes or less to minimize the stress placed on the seal.

With the help of citizens, MCBP, MARP, Ocean City Animal Control, and other partners, the message is getting out and is creating a source of information on local seal habits to aid scientists in the conservation of this significant and majestic species. MCBP’s Seal Steward program has become an integral component of this initiative. When a seal hauls out and is deemed healthy by the MARP response team, the Seal Stewards take shifts watching the seal, ensuring beach goers keep a safe distance. They also provide specific information on the seal they are watching.

MCBP and MARP will be conducting a seal steward training on Tuesday, November 7th beginning at 5:30 p.m. at the West Ocean City Fire Department, located at 10124 Keyser Road, 2nd Floor. If you are interested in participating, please contact Sandi Smith at sandis@mdcoastalbays.org or by calling 410-213-2297 ext. 106.

If you spot a seal on the beach, we encourage you to please call MARP. If you see one in the bay, unless you think it’s in distress (please call MARP), we ask you please report it to MCBP either by registering it online at www.mdcoastalbays.org or by calling 410-213-229 ext. 106.

We hope and encourage our community to responsibly enjoy and protect our winter visitors. If you would like more information or have a group who would be interested in a presentation on our Seal Stewards program, please contact Sandi.

If you would like to help our seals without donating your time, Maryland Coastal Bays Program is seeking to raise $5,000 from donors on Giving Tuesday, November 27, to support education and outreach activities associated with our wildlife protection and marine debris removal programs. If you are interested in donating to our program can do it online at www.mdcoastalbays.org starting November 20th.

Smith is the Development and Marketing Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 



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