Arctic ribbon seal has a surprise checkup

EVERETT — An Arctic ribbon seal had his tropical winter vacation interrupted Tuesday by an unplanned doctor’s appointment.

The seal was basking under balmy Everett skies on a dock in Steamboat Slough when it was netted, measured, had blood drawn and was weighed by staff of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Marine mammal specialists with the agency wanted to make sure the animal was healthy after straying so far from home.

Not all the data were available late Tuesday, but the seal, an adult male, appeared to be in good shape, said Kristin Wilkinson, a marine mammal stranding specialist for NOAA fisheries in Seattle.

Ribbon seals are native to the waters around Alaska and northeastern Russia, particularly the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk. Researchers believe the seal is the same one seen two weeks ago on the banks of Ebey Slough near Marysville and the week before in the Duwamish River near Seattle.

This ribbon seal is only the second ever to have been recorded as having been seen on the West Coast of the 48 contiguous United States, Wilkinson said. The first was seen in Morro Bay in central California in 1962, she said.

This seal weighed 185 pounds, about average for a male ribbon seal this time of year, she said.

Researchers are unsure why the seal has strayed so far south. It might have been chasing food, which consists of a variety of sea creatures such as shrimp, octopus, crab and pollock, Wilkinson said. Right now, there’s a lot of shrimp in Puget Sound and other inland waterways, she said.

Or the seal could have been caught in a storm, Wilkinson said.

Peter Bird, who lives on the property where the seal was found Tuesday, said his wife saw it early in the morning when she was out walking the dog.

“She just saw this big, black thing on the dock,” Bird said. His wife shone her flashlight toward the object.

“The seal just kind of grunted at her,” he said.

Bird retrieved his camera, took photos and called NOAA.

When the NOAA crew showed up, the seal seemed nonchalant, showing little reaction while allowing people to get within six or seven feet, Wilkinson said.

The animal tried to flee only when one of the crew members tossed a long-handled fishing net over it. It remained mostly calm while crew members held it down to have it measured and examined.

The seal was then transferred to another net. Straps were attached to the net and also to a bipod that crew members tilted upward so the seal could be suspended long enough to be weighed.

When the work was done, after about 20 minutes, the net was removed and the seal was set free. It quickly wriggled toward the edge of the dock and slipped into the water.

The seals spend about 10 months of the year swimming, are deep divers and can stay underwater for 30 minutes without coming up for air. They “haul out” from the water only during the spring, usually on ice floes, to mate and care for their young, Wilkinson said.

Both males and females have the distinctive white stripes around their bodies, but the males otherwise are black while the females are brown.

There are two lines of thought of why ribbon seals have the stripes, according to a 2008 NOAA report. The seals are born all white and then develop the stripes over time. One opinion is that the stripes are used for mate identification. Another suggested that this pattern helps to break up the shape of the ribbon seal’s body when seen from a distance, making it less discernible from the surrounding ice and shadows.

The seal found locally will not be trapped and returned to its natural habitat, said Peter Boveng, polar ecosystem program leader for NOAA in Seattle. Ribbon seals are allowed to be taken by subsistence hunters in Alaska, and though this animal appears healthy, seals that stray from their natural area sometimes pick up diseases that could be spread among the population, he said.

“He’s kind of on his own,” Boveng said.

Officials plan to continue to track the seal, Wilkinson said. Ribbon seals, along with harbor seals, sea lions and other pinnipeds such as walruses and elephant seals, are safeguarded under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

While ribbon seals have not suffered a decline in population, NOAA fisheries is considering affording ribbon seals additional protection under the Endangered Species Act because of shrinking sea ice, their primary habitat.

Anyone who sees the ribbon seal locally is asked to call NOAA at 206-526-4747.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

More in Local News

A customer walks away after buying a hot dog from a vendor on 33rd St and Smith Street near the Everett Station on Friday. The Everett Station District Alliance pictures the area east of Broadway and south of Hewitt Avenue as a future neighborhood and transit hub that could absorb expected population growth. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
How can Everett Station become a vibrant part of city?

A neighborhood alliance focused on long-term revitalization will update the public Tuesday.

Man arrested after police find van full of drugs, cash and guns

An officer on patrol noticed a vehicle by itself in the middle of a WinCo parking lot at 2 a.m.

After work to address issues, Lynnwood gets clean audit

The city has benefited from increased revenues from sales tax.

Bolshevik replaces BS in Eyman’s voters pamphlet statement

The initiative promoter also lost a bid to include a hyperlink to online coverage of the battle.

Man with shotgun confronts man on toilet about missing phone

Police say the victim was doing his business when the suspect barged in and threatened him.

Detectives seek suspect in woman’s homicide

Alisha Michelle Canales-McGuire was shot to death Wednesday at a home south of Paine Field.

Car crashes near Everett after State Patrol pursuit

The driver and a second person in the car suffered injuries.

Smith Island habitat restoration cost to rise $1.2 million

The project is intended to increase survival rates for juvenile chinook salmon.

Jim Mathis, the Vietnam veteran whose Marysville garden was recently featured in The Herald, died Wednesday. Mathis, who suffered from PTSD and cancer, found solace in his beautiful garden. (Dan Bates / The Herald)
Vietnam veteran Jim Mathis found peace in his garden

The Marysville man who served two tours died Wednesday after suffering from cancer and PTSD.

Most Read