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Reaching out to keep unexpected visitors safe - January 15, 2013

Two weeks ago the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and the National Aquarium Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP) launched their outreach program on responsible seal viewing and sighting reporting.

From this initial outreach we are hearing that many people were not aware that seals even visit our coastal bays. Responses varied from “I knew we have dolphins but not seals” to “I’ve been living here for over 40 years and never heard of a seal in the bay!”

There is little known documentation of just how long seals have been visiting our bays, but we know they visit. Generally when a seal is spotted out of the water, the conclusion is that it is in trouble. Thankfully, most of the time, that is not the case. It is always wise to call MARP’s hotline, 1-800-628-9944, so a trained observer can evaluate the condition of the seal to determine if it’s doing its normal thing or is in distress.

When reporting a seal, or just watching, make sure to stay at least 50 feet away from the animal. Not only is it the law, but it also keeps them stress free; getting to close or touching a seal could cause serious stress and create a dangerous situation for people and/or the seal. By being gracious hosts we can create a great environment for our wintery friends.

The coastal bays enjoy several brief and superficial marine mammal and turtle visitors throughout the year. For the most part, their lives remain a captivating mystery to us, punctuated by brief encounters with those that appear to either rest, nest, breed or die.

Knowledge of many marine animals and turtles is limited due to infrequent viewing opportunities and difficulties identifying specific species, with the exception of our frolicking dolphins, sightings in this area are rare. The rarity of these sightings for the interested public heightens the awareness for conservation. The notion of limited sightings for certain species indigenous to this area can imply the need for protection management. Fortunately, there are organizations working together in our area to keep track of our elusive marine animals and turtles.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Natural Resources, the National Park Service, the Assateague State Park, Ocean City Animal Control, Worcester County Animal Control, Ocean City Coast Guard Station and MARP all network to keep a tally of our infrequent visitors as well as protect and conserve them.

MARP is the capstone of this organizational partnership. Since 1991, the National Aquarium’s MARP has been responsible for responding to stranded marine mammals and sea turtles along the Delmarva (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) Peninsula, primarily along the nearly 7,000 miles of Maryland coast.

MARP has successfully rescued, treated, and returned nearly 100 animals to their natural habitats, including harbor, gray, harp and hooded seals; Kemp’s Ridley, green and loggerhead sea turtles; rough-toothed dolphins; a harbor porpoise; a pygmy sperm whale; and a manatee, and is currently Assateague’s one and only surviving loggerhead hatching from this summer.

When any of the partners receive a reporting of a marine animal or turtle, the call goes to MARP, who, in return, sends out a trained volunteer to evaluate the sighting and determine if a rescue is needed. Fortunately, our seal sightings have been happy, healthy seals.

Unfortunately, a Kemp Ridgley sea turtle was stranded in our bays during Hurricane Sandy suffering from cold stunting — sometimes when turtles migrate south for the winter, they get stuck in cold waters causing hypothermia. When that happens, their immune system is compromised, and sadly, this guy didn’t make it. But fortunately, they are working with several of the more than 150 sea turtles stranded in the Cape Cod area from an overwhelming cold-stunt rescue (involving placement of turtles for rehab from Cape Cod to Florida) and it looks like they will be able to be re-released to go back to a normal turtle life.

MCBP is excited to be a partner with MARP on the seal outreach and after two years are anxious to see what we learn about our visiting pinnipeds.

I’d like to end this piece by saying that my position with MCBP is to raise funds and awareness to our great programs. I hope you will consider becoming a member and donor to both our program and MARP as MARP does great things for our elusive yet curiously exciting visitors.
 

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


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