Thursday, January 17, 2019

Return of the sea dog

            The parking lot at Blue Shutters Beach in Charlestown was overflowing with vehicles, even though the temperature on this mid-October morning was just 50 degrees and strong winds and threatening skies made the beach unappealing to sunbathers. The attraction for the 200 people bundled in winter coats and rain gear was the six harbor seal pups that were being released back into the wild by Mystic Aquarium after the animals had been abandoned by their mothers the previous spring.
            Standing behind a rope policed by aquarium volunteers, the onlookers watched as six large crates were unloaded from a blue Ford pickup truck, lined up side-by-side about 20 yards from the water line, and simultaneously opened to release the seals.
            One seal, named Kauai by its aquarium caretakers, immediately raced straight toward the water in a clumsy, caterpillar-like manner, then hesitated as he approached the crashing waves.
Harbor seals released at Blue Shutters Beach (Todd McLeish)
That allowed Tigres to slide into the water first and quickly disappear. Kauai then changed his mind and headed back toward his crate before apparently rethinking his strategy and turning toward the water again. A third seal, this one with a satellite tracking device glued to her back, soon joined Tigres in the roiling Atlantic.
            The three remaining seals seemed uncertain whether to enter the water or remain on the beach. Or maybe they just enjoyed playing in the crashing surf. They wandered several hundred yards back and forth along the ocean’s edge for nearly an hour, occasionally galumphing into the water only to be tossed back ashore by the waves. One almost made it past the surf line before catching a wave like a boogie boarder and riding it all the way back to the beach.
            By the time all of the animals reclaimed the marine environment as their true home, most of the crowd had disappeared and the aquarium officials had packed up the crates for their trip back to Mystic.
            “That was a pretty typical release for really young harbor seal pups,” said Janelle Schuh, who manages the aquarium’s Animal Rescue Program. “It’s very normal for them to take their time getting back in the water, especially on a day with some significant surf.”
            Mystic Aquarium responds to about 60 reports of stranded marine mammals and sea turtles on beaches in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Fisher’s Island, N.Y., each year, most of which are seals found on Rhode Island’s ocean-facing beaches. Five to ten of those calls result in the animal being brought to the aquarium’s clinic for long-term care. The aquarium also accepts seals from elsewhere in the Northeast when other rehabilitation facilities are full. Most are abandoned harbor seal pups that are rescued in May, when they should still be nursing.
“We can’t be sure why they’re abandoned,” Schuh said. “They may be separated from their mom in a storm, or maybe mom doesn’t know how to care for it.”
By September or October, the animals are ready to be returned to the sea.
Harbor seals have made a dramatic comeback in Rhode Island waters in the nearly half century since the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972. Until then, seals were hunted everywhere they could be found, including in Narragansett Bay, where some boaters were reported to shoot seals for sport. In Massachusetts and Maine there was even a bounty of $5 paid for every seal killed because fishermen claimed the animals were eating their catch. When the legislation prohibited the harassment or killing of seals, seal numbers began to grow and their range expanded. Today, approximately 100,000 harbor seals can be found in New England waters, some of which spend the winter months in Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound.
Growing up to six feet long and 350 pounds – one quarter of which is an insulating layer of blubber – harbor seals are widely distributed throughout coastal regions of the North Atlantic and North Pacific, where they swim in the surf, haul themselves onto rocks to rest at low tide, and feed on a variety of fish, squid, crabs and other marine creatures. Those that visit Rhode Island between October and April return north to Maine and the Canadian Maritimes for the breeding season.
Despite the warming waters from the changing climate that is shifting many marine populations northward, the seals are instead expanding their range southward, with winter haul-out sites now occupied as far south as Virginia, though they don’t breed south of Cape Cod.
“They’re a cold-water species, but that’s not because they can’t tolerate the warm water,” said Bob Kenney, a marine mammal expert and retired marine scientist at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography. “It’s not temperature that drives them away when things warm up. They leave southern New England and go north because.... 

Read the rest of the story in the January 2019 issue of Rhode Island Monthly magazine.

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