See a seal, leave it be: In most cases, adult seals and pups are just fine

  • By Sarah Jackson Herald Writer
  • Friday, April 18, 2008 12:03pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Wildlife lovers, it’s time for a pop quiz: You see a baby seal flopping around on the beach. No mother seal is in sight. What should you do for the isolated pup?

If you answered, “Nothing,” congrats: You’ve earned a perfect score.

Unfortunately, many people think the right answers might be feed it, cover it with a blanket, pour water on it, talk calmly to it, pet it or put it back in the water.

Human contact with pups, however, actually puts the baby seals in greater danger of being abandoned by their mothers. Staying at least 100 yards away is best.

To drive this often-overlooked environmental point of etiquette home, Susan Morrow of Edmonds, a seasonal beach ranger for the city of Edmonds, has started up the Edmonds Seal Sitters.

Today the group will host its first classroom training and organizational meeting in Edmonds.

“I’m always telling folks on the beach what to do, and they don’t seem to believe that the seal will be fine if we just leave it be,” Morrow said. “Every summer, it just strikes me, if we just had more people we could do this better.”

Harbor seals need to use the shoreline every day, said Kristin Wilkinson, a marine mammal stranding specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. They rest, relax and regulate their body temperature.

It’s a habit called hauling out, and it’s particularly common on Snohomish and Island county beaches from June through September, when most seal pups in the area are born.

Last year Wilkinson took about 2,000 calls about marine mammal stranding issues in Washington and Oregon. Many of them were regarding seal pups that were perfectly fine.

Though roughly 15,000 seals populate Washington’s inland waters, people just don’t understand how a seal, especially an adorable pup, could be left alone on the beach.

West Seattle started a seal sitters group last year with training from NOAA and now has a group of volunteers ready to act when calls come in about seemingly abandoned seals.

Edmonds Seal Sitters, Morrow said, will take an active role in educating people who want to approach seals on the beach this summer. They will, when appropriate, help isolate the seals from humans with signs and warning tape, and they’ll talk to and share information with passersby about seals and the environment.

“I just want people to be gently educated to know what to do,” Morrow said. “We’ll wait around until the seals go back in the water, which they always do. That will be our contribution.”

During summer months mother seals often leave their nursing babies behind to rest while they swim away to hunt for food such as rockfish, cod, herring, flounder or salmon, sometimes for as many as 48 hours.

Staying a minimum of 100 yards away from seals using the shore allows the mothers and pups access to each other and gives them time to rest undisturbed by humans.

People who come in direct contact with seals are also putting themselves in danger.

“We don’t want them to get bit,” Wilkinson said. “They do carry diseases that are transmitted to humans and to pets. You want you make sure you keep a safe distance.”

Morrow is excited about working with the community, including a Girl Scout troop of second-graders, who have volunteered to help with the group.

“We are establishing a junior seal sitters group just for them,” Morrow said, adding that future training sessions will include low-tide walks as well as classroom instruction. “We’re already starting a waiting list for the next training.”

Reporter Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037 or

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