OCEAN CITY — With more and more beached seal sightings and strandings in and around the resort area, the National Aquarium’s Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP) coordinator this week briefed the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and other allied agencies on the appropriate response and reinforced the message the public should report sightings but generally leave the animals alone.
Largely due to a variety of natural and man-made causes, seals, sea turtles and other creatures not typically seem up close and personal are turning up on area beaches. Most are healthy and just resting along their normal migratory patterns, but others are diseased or injured and in need of rescue and rehabilitation.
For over 20 years, the National Aquarium’s MARP program, including a team of local volunteer first-responders along with trained professionals have rescued and rehabilitated countless seals, sea turtles and in some case dolphins and whales from the beaches in the mid-Atlantic region with great success. Most fall into one of three basic categories and the response is adjusted based on a variety of factors, according the MARP Stranding Coordinator Jen Dittmar, who addressed the Coastal Bays program this week.
“A lot of them are not diseased or injured,” she said. “They just get out of their habitat and are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes, just relocating them is the appropriate response.”
In far too many cases, however, the beached seals and other creatures are ill or injured, requiring a much larger response.
“In other cases, the animals are alive, but due to an injury or illness, they can’t return to their habitat,” she said. “In those cases, we need to intervene and rescue and rehabilitate them before returning them to the wild. Depending on the nature of the illness or injury, that process can be a matter of weeks or several months.”
From around mid-December to late April or early May, more and more seals have been spotted on resort area beaches, which is not unusual. Dittmar said this week most are passing through the area along their normal migratory pattern.
“Seals are semi-aquatic and a lot of them are traveling great distances,” she said. “Sometimes, they’re perfectly healthy but they need to just haul out and rest. They’ll haul out and rest for a day or so in some cases and they’ll turn up wherever they can get out of the rough surf. Most often, it’s right on the beach, but it’s not unusual to see them resting on a boat dock for example.”
Dittmar said the MARP program relies on teams of local volunteers that act as first-responders. The volunteers are trained to know what to look for and often provide immediate care for beached seals and sea turtles, and in some cases dolphins and whales. The MARP volunteers provide care and treatment for the animals until the professionals can arrive from the aquarium.
“The first-responders score the animals on a variety of basic characteristics to determine a course of action,” she said. “In most cases, they don’t even let the animals know they are there because they don’t want to cause more stress to an already stressful situation. That’s why we try to preach to the public not to approach the animals or disturb them because it’s so important.”
Dittmar said typically as short as 15 minutes can be enough time to make an evaluation of a beached seal, sea turtle or cetacean. The location of the animal is often a good indication of its overall health. For example, a seal found just past the high tide line is likely healthy and just resting or sunning, while a seal found rolling around in the surf is likely diseased or injured.
Another important indicator is respiration. MARP volunteers often observe the animal’s breathing by looking at its nostrils, which can determine of the breathing is clear, raspy or gurgled. Oddly, another key indicator is the presence of tears, which is a natural defense mechanism. Healthy seals secrete an abundance of tears to wash sand and saltwater from their noses and mouths while on land.
MARP volunteers also document the behavior of seals and other sea animals discovered on land and the posture is often a great indicator of health. For example, a healthy seal will rest with its back arched in a u-shape with its head and flippers up. A diseased or injured seal will rest with its head and flippers on the ground, indicating the animal cannot support itself on land.
The most common seals found on the beaches in and around the Ocean City area are grey seals and harbor seals, although there have been more incidents recently of hooded seals and harp seals. Because of Maryland’s proximity in the mid-Atlantic, and because of changing trends in water temperatures, what used to be rare sightings and strandings are becoming more frequent.
While seals discovered on the beach are often cute and attractive, Dittmar emphasized the importance of not approaching them or touching them. Instead, she urged local residents and visitors to report seal and other marine mammal sightings to MARP at 1-800-628-9944.