OCEAN CITY — With the weather turning colder and the season gradually changing, it’s only a matter of time before the first migrating seal hauls out on the beach in and around the resort area, and the Maryland Coastal Bays Program (MCBP) is already preparing for their arrival.
Each winter, migrating seals of various species and sizes pass through the mid-Atlantic region as part of their normal migratory patterns and more than a few haul out on the beaches in and around Ocean City and Assateague. Many are simply resting or sunning themselves along their journey, while others are ill or injured.
In either case, the seals present an adorable opportunity for residents and visitors to enjoy them from afar, but interaction with humans and even their pets can often have dangerous consequences. To that end, the MCBP is once again starting up its seal steward program in advance of their arrival.
The MCBP and the National Aquarium Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP) several years ago partnered to launch an outreach program on responsible seal viewing and sighting reporting. Out of that partnership was born a highly successful seal steward program in place for the last few winters. The program represents an “on call” opportunity for volunteers, according to Sandi Smith of the MCBP.
“When a seal hauls out, seal stewards will be contacted to see if they are available to man the haul-out area to make sure beach and dog walkers keep a safe distance to protect both the walkers and the seal,” she said. “Educational material and information will be provided at each haul-out so that stewards can inform interested onlookers.”
The first instinct for many who come across a seal hauled out on the beach, or in some cases along docks and piers, is to get close to the affable creatures and take pictures and even touch them in some cases. However, Smith said despite their outward appearance, seals can present dangers to humans and their pets.
“Their dog-like faces and lumpy bodies make seals adorably appealing and seemingly approachable, but an up close and personal encounter with a seal can cause serious stress to the animal and create a dangerous situation for both people and the seal,” she said.
Smith said with most haul-outs, the seals are merely resting during their migratory pattern. When a seal lays on a beach it is hauling out, which is a normal behavior with pinnipeds of temporarily leaving the water between periods of foraging activity for sites on land. Hauling out is also necessary for seals for mating, giving birth, avoiding predators, thermal regulation, parasite reduction and even social activity. However, the latter shouldn’t include interaction with humans and their pets on the beach.
“As the seals that we experience in our area are temporary visitors, their hauling out here is primarily for rest or distress,” said Smith. “Therefore, close encounters by humans and dogs put both at risk. Seals will bite and serious infections can be transmitted to you or your pet.”
To that end, the MCBP is hosting a seal steward recruitment event next Tuesday, Nov. 7, at the Ocean City Fire Department station on Keyser Point Rd. in West Ocean City at 5:30 p.m. National Aquarium Marine Animal Stranding Coordinator Jen Dittmar will conduct the training. Anyone interested in attending the training and becoming a seal steward should contact Smith at 410-213-2297 or by email at [email protected].
In the meantime, anyone who encounters a seal on the beach this winter is urged to call MARP’s direct line at 410-576-3880 so a trained observer can evaluate the condition of the animal to determine if it is just doing its normal activity or if it is in distress. Seal sightings can also be registered on the MCBP website at www.mdcoastalbays.org.