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The Coastal Bays Prepares to Welcome Our Winter Visitors - October 25, 2015

    As the winter months approach, our coastal bays are gearing up to receive some special visitors: migrating seals. Four different species of seals have been known to migrate through the coastal bays; the harp, harbor, hooded, and grey seals. The two most commonly seen in Maryland are harbor and grey seals. 

    Seals migrate through the coastal bays as they leave the colder, northern waters off of Canada and the United States for warmer waters down south. They have been known to migrate as far south as the Carolinas. The seals that visit our bays are usually solitary juveniles that tend to stay no longer than a week or two before continuing with their journey. There have been exceptions, however; some seals have been known to group on the smaller islands in the area for periods as long as a month or two. 

    Seals are often found lying on our sandy beaches, in a behavior that is known as “hauling out”. This is normal behavior for pinnipeds, which are marine mammals that have front and rear flippers such as seals, sea lions, and walruses. Pinnipeds “haul out” or temporarily leave the water for a variety of reasons. They might “haul out” for activities such as mating, giving birth, thermal/heat regulation, moulting, predator avoidance, and resting. The primary reason for seals hauling out while visiting Maryland’s coastal bays is either for rest or the seal could be in distress.

     Disturbances while seals are “hauled out”, such as human interaction, can cause the seals stress which may prompt them to enter the water prematurely. If a tired or stressed out seal enters the water without proper rest, they may become more vulnerable to larger predators such as sharks. Therefore, human interactions with the seals should be kept to a minimum. Seals, along with whales, otters, manatees, dolphins, and even polar bears are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). This act means it is against the law to touch, feed, capture, collect, or otherwise harass marine mammals. Harassment occurs when human behavior stresses the animal and changes the animals behavior or actions. When you come across any marine mammal, the best rule is to stay at least 50 yards away and to limit viewing time to 30 minutes to minimize any disturbance. 

    Close encounters by humans and dogs can be dangerous for both the seals and those interacting with them. Seals might look cuddly but they are wild animals that may bite, especially when stressed, and serious infections can be transmitted to you or your pets. Increased human interactions can lead to seals becoming habituated to humans. Seals that are acclimated to humans are more likely to suffer from negative human interactions and are less likely to avoid dangerous situations. Interactions such as feeding the seals encourages them to approach humans and boats, which has resulted in seals being injured by boat propellers. 

    In order to protect our seasonal visitors, the Maryland Coastal Bays Program (MCBP) partnered with the National Aquarium’s Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP) three years ago to begin an outreach program on responsible seal viewing and sightings reporting. As a result, the seal steward program was established to enable local citizens to keep track of the seals in their area and to ensure the seals have plenty of space away from human disturbances while visiting the Maryland coastal bays. 

    This year, the MCBP and MARP will be hosting a volunteer training for its seal steward program at the Blue Ox in Ocean City, on Friday, October 30th at 5:30 p.m. The National Aquarium’s Marine Animal Stranding Coordinator, Jen Dittmar, will conduct the training. If you plan on attending the training or wish to join the seal steward program, please contact Sandi Smith from MCBP at sandis@mdcoastalbays.org or 410-213-2297 ext. 106. 

    If you happen to be lucky enough to see a seal this winter, please call MARP’s direct line at 410-576-3880 or 1-800-628-9944 and register your sighting on MCBP’s website – www.mdcoastalbays.org – so a trained observer can evaluate the condition of the seal and ensure the seal is disturbed as little as possible. Please be respectful of our visitors and keep them safe by giving them their space. 

 

Katherine Phillips is the Program Manager for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

 
 


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