OCEAN CITY — The number of seals “hauling out” on local beaches is causing more than a few interactions with humans and pets, prompting the Maryland Coastal Bays Program (MCBP) to reinforce the message about giving the annual visitors plenty of space and initiating a volunteer seal steward program.
The MCBP works in concert with National Aquarium’s Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP) and other partners to help ensure the visiting seals are not harassed by residents, visitors to the resort and curiosity-seekers. However, the charming visitors are often hard to resist, forcing the MCBP this week to remind people it’s against the law to touch, feed or otherwise harass seals and those viewing them on the beach are required to stay at least 50 feet away.
“This year, Ocean City is experiencing a significant increase in seal sightings on our beaches and bays, creating a lot of excitement and social media activity,” said MCBP spokesperson Sandi Smith said. “Their dog-like faces and lumpy bodies make them adorably appealing and seemingly approachable. However, an up close and personal encounter with a seal can cause serious stress and create a dangerous situation for people and/or the seal.”
Smith said an increased number of reported seal sightings coupled with larger than normal holiday weekend crowd last weekend exacerbated the problem.
“Unfortunately, many that came to view the seals were not aware of proper seal viewing,” said Smith. “We encountered people taking up close ‘selfies,’ crossing underneath a taped area to get closer to a seal, standing over top a seal for an up-close photograph and actually trying to feed a seal. Others, allowing their dogs to run without a leash on the beach were surprised to find that the lump on the ground was not a piece of driftwood their dog was circling and sniffing, but a seal.”
Smith said such encounters can cause severe stress to the seals although the level of stress is not always immediately apparent.
“Although a seal may not appear to be disturbed by such encounters, this is far from reality,” she said. “All up close encounters pose serious trauma to an exhausted wild animal seeking rest and refuge on our beaches.”
Last year, MARP and the MCBP launched an outreach program on responsible seal viewing and sighting reporting and the message was received loud and clear by residents and frequent visitors to the resort during the winter. However, many apparently have not been made aware of the dangers of close encounters, both for the seals and humans and their pets.
“As with any outreach program, it takes several years for a message to become practice,” said Smith. “Local and regional media have embraced the message and have done an outstanding job of putting the message out there, but after last weekend, MCBP and MARP realized we have a lot more work to do.”
Smith said last weekend’s encounters have prompted the MCBP to begin recruiting volunteers as “seal stewards.” The volunteer positions will be an ‘on call’ opportunity. When a seal hauls out on beach or on rocks, jetties and piers, the MCBP will ask the seal stewards to man the haul-out area and help educate beach visitors and dog walkers to ensure safe and proper seal watching for all involved. Those interested in participating in the volunteer seal steward program can contact Smith at 410-213-2297, extension 107, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The MCBP and MARP encourage those who spot a seal on the beach to contact MARP’s hotline at 800-628-9944, or register the sighting on the MCBP website so a trained observer can evaluate the condition of the seal and determine whether it is in distress.