The Marine Mammal Center rescued an underweight harbor seal Feb. 21, marking their first seal rescue of the season. Trained volunteers and staff were able to take care of the pup after they were contacted by a beachgoer, although this is not always the case when a human interacts with a seal.
Sightings of seal pups are increasing because elephant and harbor seals have returned to local beach rookeries to give birth to their pups.
The birthing and breeding season for elephant seals occurs between Thanksgiving and the first week of December, according to Tim Bridwell, co-president of Board of Directors for Friends of the Elephant Seals.
“Once the mature males start coming back in [the ocean], the pregnant females go on the beach to have their pups short[ly] after,” Bridwell said.
After the pups are born in December, the Marine Mammal Center hits its peak rescue season starting in late February continuing through May, according to the Marine Mammal Center of San Luis Obispo Operations Manager Diana Kramer.
While this can be a special opportunity to see wildlife, the Marine Mammal Center has advised beachgoers to view the pups in a safe way to avoid negative human interaction. Kramer said spectators should take certain precautions to not harm wildlife.
“We encourage people to view wildlife in a way that is safe for the person and for the animal,” Kramer said.
For the past few years, the organization has promoted their “Leave Seals Be” campaign that advises people to give young pups distance. This is important for the pups because they need to rest on the beach and are sensitive to human presence, according to Kramer.
“If you are taking a picture, you should be using a zoom and if you’re not, you’re too close,” Kramer said.
Kramer advises standing 50 feet away from the pups so they don’t notice onlookers. Newborn pups are at the most vulnerable stages of their lives, so it is important to remember these three tips when viewing them:
- When the harbor seal mothers leave to feed at sea, they are not abandoning their pups on the beach.
- Taking photos of the pups is allowed, but if the pups notice you and you are not using your zoom, then you are too close.
- If you see a seal in distress, you should call the rescue and response team in Morro Bay at (805) 771-8300. Trained volunteers and staff will rescue it safely.
Kramer said it is important to call Marine Mammal Center if onlookers are concerned about the seals, rather than dealing with the situation themselves.
“We want people to have an enjoyable experience in a way that is safe for the animal and what that really means is giving them space,” Kramer said.
It is also important to keep dogs at a distance to avoid them getting bit or contracting a disease from the pups. Kramer advised pet owners to keep dogs on a leash and avoid contact with pups.
“Unfortunately we do see times when pups get separated from their moms and if there is a dog around, the mom might be too nervous to to go back to the baby,” Kramer said.
The Marine Mammal Center wants the community to enforce these safety tips after beachgoers interfered with ten newborn seal pups last year. In addition to that, 60 seal and sea lions were rescued in 2017 because of negative human interactions.
One extreme case of human interference occurred when a beachgoer took a newborn harbor pup home after she was separated from her mother. The pup was later returned to the ocean and the Marine Mammal Center was notified shortly after.
After the pup was returned, she was taken to the Center’s Sausalito hospital where staff confirmed she was taken off the beach prematurely. The staff and volunteers were able to give the pup a second chance at life, but she was not able to be reconnected with her mother.