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Admire our winter visitors, but from a distance - December 27, 2012

If you are looking out into our coastal bays this winter and you see something that resembles a seal, it probably is a seal.

Seal sightings in Delmarva, both in the bays and ocean, are occurring more frequently. Our first winter pinniped is currently residing in the Isle of Wight Bay and has been spotted anywhere from 6th street to the Inlet.

Three years ago, there was a colony of seals residing on Drum Island. Several West Ocean City residents living behind the island actually reported seals in their front yard.

With the increase of our migrating visitors, Maryland Coastal Bays has partnered with the National Aquarium’s Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP) to provide more public outreach regarding seals and their natural behaviors, as well as other marine mammal species.

With the help of citizens, MCBP, MARP and other partners are aiming to create a source of information on local seal habits to aide scientists in the conservation of this significant and majestic species.

Seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMA). It is against the law to touch, feed or otherwise harass seals. Harassment occurs when your behavior changes their behavior.

Seals have an appealingly adorable presence and appearance. Like the Assateague ponies, one can’t help but want to get closer and even touch or feed them. But, such human contact does more harm than good and ultimately leads to bad results for our wild neighbors.

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. It is much safer for seals to stay fearful of boats.

And like our Assateague ponies, 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 are semi-aquatic animals, which means they often spend a portion of each day on land. Seals need to ‘haul out’ for a variety of reasons; to rest, pup and molt (shed). Young seals may haul out for up to a week. Disturbance will cause unnecessary stress and will encourage it to get back into water. An exhausted seal becomes very vulnerable to predators and illness.

MCBP and MARP are hoping to reach out to you and our community on protecting our seals by habit education and responsible viewing. It is perfectly normal for a seal to take a rest on the beach.

The best thing you can do for that seal is stay at least 50 yards away, and avoid being noisy and report it to MARP by calling 1-800-628-9944. A field representative will respond to the call to determine if the seal is simply doing its thing or is in distress.

As for seals in the bays, if you see one, we ask you to report it to MCBP (unless you feel it is in distress — then please contact MARP immediately at 1-800-628-9944) by either entering it online through our website — or by calling us at 410-213-2297, ext. 107, so we can keep track of where our visitors are and how they are doing. Should you have a seal residing close to you, keep us posted on its activity. But most importantly, keep it safe by giving it space.

If you are fortunate to be out on the water this winter, please keep your eyes peeled. Seals are likely to surface unexpectedly. And please stay at least 50 yards away if you see any on our island.

This goes for non-motorized water vehicles as well. Close approaches should be avoided as they may elicit an alarm response, causing seals to rapidly enter the water. And it is suggested to limit your viewing time to 30 minutes as continued presence can cause unnecessary stress.

We hope and encourage our community to responsibly enjoy and protect our winter visitors. Literature will be available shortly. If you would like more information or have a group who would be interested in a presentation on our seal program, please contact Sandi Smith at or 410-213-2297, ext. 107.

Sandi Smith is the development and marketing coordinator at Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

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