Marine Biology: Volunteering to Protect Baby Harbor Seals

A baby harbor seal rests on the sidewalk near the shore.
A baby harbor seal rests on the sidewalk by the water.

The emergency email landed in my queue at 3:30 in the afternoon earlier this week. A baby harbor seal had come ashore and the Seal Sitters needed volunteers to take shifts standing guard around the perimeter. The kids, my mom and I had attended the Seal Sitters orientation in July but we hadn’t had the opportunity yet to seal sit. I quickly called the volunteer coordinator and offered to take the 6-8 p.m. shift. I left work early – luckily, I have the flexibility to be able to adjust my hours – and rushed home to get the kids and my mom to head to West Seattle, where the seal was located. We had to negotiate rush-hour traffic, which more than doubled our drive time to about 45 minutes. (I mention this only because it affected the patience level of my kids and, as parents know, you have a small window before whining and meltdowns begin.)

Shen and Meilee observe a baby harbor seal as it rests.
Shen and Meilee observe a harbor seal pup as it rests.

We weren’t given many details other than the nearest cross streets and ended up having to walk several blocks to get to where first responders from Seal Sitters had already taped off a wide perimeter around the pup. It was our job to warn passers-by that there was a seal pup resting on the walkway below and let them know it was OK to observe from a distance. It was helpful that where the pup was resting was at the base of a ramp that had railings – a good barrier to keep the humans from getting too close and disturbing the pup.

Volunteers are given mini pamphlets about harbor seals to share with the public.
Volunteers are given mini pamphlets about harbor seals to share with the public.

Seal Sitters is an organization that’s a member of NOAA’s Pacific Northwest Marine Mammal Stranding Network. During seal pup birthing season, mom seals and their pups often “haul out” or come ashore to rest, regulate their body temperature and nurse. The mom may leave her baby on shore while she forages for more food and return later to nurse. Members of the stranding network respond to reports of seal sightings on shore.

In West Seattle, Seal Sitters serve as the first responders as well as “guards” and community educators. It is illegal to go near a marine mammal. Unfortunately, humans are often curious about seals that have hauled out and get too close and end up harming a pup or scaring the mom so much that she abandons her pup. There have been many cases where people have taken seal pups to the vet because they thought it was injured. It’s a traumatizing experience for the pup and, because it’s illegal to touch or transport a marine mammal, the vet can’t accept the seal as a patient.

Signs are posted to warn passers-by.
Signs are posted to warn passers-by.

I wanted Meilee and Shen to become kid ambassadors for Seal Sitters for several reasons:

  • To learn about volunteerism and giving back to the community.
  • To expose them to marine biology and the importance of not disturbing natural processes.
  • To learn to appreciate the beauty of our environment (e.g. being on the water at sunset).
  • To begin to get a sense about committing to an important task and fulfilling the requirements (seal sitting for an entire two-hour shift and helping to educate others about harbor seals).
  • To bring life to the book “Leopard & Silkie” which is a true story about a boy who helps protect pups that came ashore in 2007. The book was co-authored by Brenda Peterson (words) and Robin Lindsey (photographs) who are also the co-founded Seal Sitters. Meilee and Shen had received the book as a gift from their grandpa a couple of years ago.
Shen and Meilee sit and watch the seal.
Shen and Meilee sit and watch the seal.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share how our shift actually went. Meilee and Shen were excited to see the seal at first and cooed about how cute it was. But because this was an unplanned event, I didn’t have time to make dinner before rushing out the door. I grabbed some granola bars and a bag of Goldfish crackers, which the kids devoured, but they were still hungry. Remember, they’d already endured the 45-minute drive through rush hour. We also faced the setting sun, which caused the kids to complain about the blinding light.

Grumpiness set in during the second hour of our seal sitting shift.
Grumpiness set in during the second hour of our seal-sitting shift.

They bickered about who got which pair of binoculars and who got to sit in the grownup chair and who got to hold the bag of Goldfish. They repeatedly asked whether we would go get some dinner and when it would be time to leave. I’d brought notebooks and markers, but I made the conscious decision to leave the Kindle at home so the kids wouldn’t be staring at a tablet instead of nature.

It was a gorgeous evening.
It was a gorgeous evening. (The kids with grandma.)

I interviewed the kids individually about their experience and this is what they said:

MEILEE, Age 6

Q: What did you learn from seal sitting?

Meilee: “Waiting a lot is kinda hard, but seeing the baby seal move is cute. Sometimes you have to wait a long time before you can do something else.”

Q: But what did you learn about the seals?

Meilee: “Harbor seals and other kinds of seals will stay safe when they’re on shore and nobody will disturb them.”

Q: What would you tell your friends about harbor seals?

Meilee: “I would tell them that different seals have different coats. What I mean by coats is spots and patterns. For example, harbor seals have polka dots, dark blue or black spots. And if you see a harbor seal and it’s just resting, laying down somewhere being still and quiet…it’s just resting. When animals are resting, it’s good to let them be. And be quiet. That’s what I would tell my friends.”

SHEN, Age 4:

Q: What did you like about seeing the seal?

Shen: “The seal moves.”

Q: What was the seal doing?

Shen: “The seal rested and mama seal get some lunch.”

(All I can say is “PHEW!” Something stuck.)

Here’s our seal pup moving:

LEARN MORE:

Seal Sitters – www.sealsitters.org

Seal Sitters blog – www.blubberblog.org

Leopard & Silkie – www.leopardandsilkie.com

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