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Stranded Seal? There's A Volunteer For That

Mystic Aquarium's First Responder Program Trains Volunteers To Keep Watch While Help Is On The Way

What would you do if you were taking your daily walk with your dog and his nose escorted you to a 200-pound harp seal, like the one that was stranded at Hammonasset State Park about a week ago? 

Would you go home and be sure that you took your correct medication? Call a friend to help you move it closer to the water? Get closer to the seal, and possibly touch it? He is so cute! Or would you race off to find it some tuna or fresh fish? Surely it must be hungry.

If you answered none of the above, that would be correct. What you should do is give it plenty of space, then call Mystic Aquarium to report your sighting.

These are just a few of the incredible things that I have learned about seals in my most recent adventures being trained as a “First Responder” for Mystic Aquarium’s Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Program.  

A few seal stats

Here are a few seal statistics I learned. 

There are several kinds of seals that use our Long Island Sound as a navigation route: 

  • Harp and hooded seals: Both are members of a seal group known as ice seals.  These animals have become regular visitors to our New England waters during the winter months as they travel from Canada, Greenland and Iceland in search of food sources that have been depleted in the Canadian waters.  Historically, juvenile seals are more often seen in our region as they have difficulty competing with the adult harp seals for food in northern waters. This year, however, has been quite different, the major shift being that the adults are coming down in larger numbers and young pups being more of a rare occurrence. We are seeing this throughout the Northeast region, and are not sure what has led to this shift.  Harp seals are essentially solitary creatures, but will congregate in groups where food is plentiful or when mating occurs.  A human analogy to this would be the “Food Court Effect” at the mall, you’ll sit down and eat at the food court, not because you know the people at the next table over, but because that’s where the food and chairs are. When you see a bunch of seals on a rocky outcrop, the two sitting next to each other may never see each other again.  Because harp seals are from regions where they don’t see people very often, they can easily feel threatened by humans and pets. 

 

  • Harbor and gray seals: These are here year round, they're not just stopping by for a quick visit.  Pupping season is April, May and June.  The east coast harbor seals do a vast majority of all pupping in the Gulf of Maine, which is why we won’t see too many of them. But rest assured, the animals are around, they’re just keeping their distance.

Depending upon the age and type, seals can stretch between four and eight feet in length and weigh between 200-800 pounds.  They spend most of their time in the water, but can also be found on land catching up on sleep and soaking in the warm sun, just like us. 

Adorable, but aggressive when disturbed

Although they are adorable, they  are mammals that live in the wild and can become aggressive when in close contact with humans or pets.  They also carry bacteria and viruses that can be dangerous to humans. 

 So, what should you do if you come across a seal on your jog along Connecticut’s shoreline, one like the fella found in Branford three weeks ago?

Call the Mystic Aquarium’s 24 hour Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Hotline at  860-572-5955, extension 107.  Leave your name, a phone number where you can be reached and the location of the animal.  While waiting for a certified First Responder to arrive, you should obey these rules:

  • Do not touch the animal.  All marine mammals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a law that makes it illegal to touch, disturb, feed or otherwise harass marine mammals without authorization.
  • Give the animal plenty of space.  Crowding stresses the animal and may cause it to act aggressively.  Federal law mandates that humans maintain a distance of at least 150 feet from seals.
  • Keep pets way from the stranded animal.  Not only can your pet bite and cause injury to the stranded animal, but your pet may be injured by it.  Bacterial infections, called zoonotic diseases, can also be transmitted from the stranded animal to pets. 
  • Do not pour water on a seal, feed it, cover it or attempt to move it into the water.  It is normal for seals to come ashore to rest.  Seals can live off the fat reserves in the blubber that keeps them warm for days. A shivering seal is not cold – it is stressed.

Both of the two seals photographed and shown with this story were harp seals who fortunately wiggled their way back into Long Island Sound without any assistance or coercion by humans.

I was one of the First Responders on the scene of both of these strandings, and was delighted that both seals returned to their native habitat.  Most seals who land on our terra firma are fine,  just resting or enjoying the sun.  A majority of seals we that are referred to Mystic’s stranding program will be released alive and healthy. 

If you would like to learn more about the Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Program, call the Mystic Aquarium at the number above.

The efforts of the Aquarium and its volunteer First Responder network are centered on the coasts of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Fishers Island, N.Y., but the Aquarium has also supported institutions from Maine to New Jersey, and even in Texas.

To date, the Aquarium has responded to more than 1,100 stranded seals, whales, dolphins and sea turtles. In 2010 alone, the Mystic stranding program responded to 42 strandings and 58 sightings, and accepted seven seals from other facilities. Connecticut and Rhode Island have some of the best rescue outcomes than any other regions, mostly due to the enormous support system of volunteers, interns and on-site vet support.

If would like to become a “first responder”,  the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration will be offering two trainings this coming May- Wednesday, May 11th from 6-8 PM at the Mystic Aquarium and Wednesday, May 25th from 6-8 PM at Hammonasset State Park.  To register for this training, e-mail the Mystic Aquarium at RESCUE@MysticAquarium.org

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