Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ice Seals: Cool Canadian Tourists

By this time of the winter, many New Englanders have fantasies of just lying on a beach for days on end. Well, there are some very large Canadian tourists that are doing just that on Massachusetts beaches. At seven feet long and weighing more than 300 pounds, adult harp and hooded seals have swum in from Canada for a mid-winter holiday in greater numbers than usual. Marine Animal Rescue staff with the Aquarium have been busy monitoring these super-sized seals from Salisbury to the South Shore over the past two weeks.

However, juvenile harp seals which normally make up the vast majority of the visiting Canadian seals are nearly absent. Canadian wildlife officials in the early winter reported a very significant die-off of young harp seals there from an unknown source. Surprisingly, that health problem does not seem to affect older animals as adult harp seals have been seen on Massachusetts beaches in significantly higher numbers than usual.

Over the Presidents' Day long weekend, a large harp seal spent 48 hours hauled out of the water on some pack ice in the King's Cove section of the Fore River in North Weymouth, Mass., about 10 miles south of Boston. (Click to enlarge image.) The robust 300 pound plus seal with a black face and a creamy white coat accented with a large black V on its back drew the attention of neighbors in the dense residential neighborhood. Even some of the longtime residents who occasionally have seen a harbor seal in the summertime were surprised by how long that it was out of the water. Harbor seals commonly spend just a tide cycle out of the water, but harp and hooded seals regularly spend two or three days resting.

This often poses a problem as passers-by assume that the seal can not move and is in distress. Actually, the vast majority of seals are fine. People frequently approach the animal too closely and disturb its rest. This can be unhealthy for both people and the seal. Some of these seals are larger than any bear in Massachusetts! Getting close to any 300 - 400 pound wild animal is not wise. Seals are not generally aggressive, but they will defend themselves if they feel threatened, and they do bite. Coming too close to a seal is actually illegal under federal law. The Marine Mammal Protection Act considers disturbing a seal harassment, and violators can be subject to large fine.

Instead, enjoy watching the seal from a safe distance of 150 feet. Good binoculars will give you a front row seat. Do not offer the seal food, do not pour water on it or try to cover it with a blanket. Watch it quietly and closely observe its location, size, coloring and behavior. Please call the Aquarium's Marine Animal Hotline at 617-973-5247 with your information. 

A common problem for resting seals are dogs running on beaches. Many beaches only allow dogs during the cool and cold months. If you see a seal or see your dog excitedly barking at something, please leash and quiet the dog as it is likely to create a high stress situation for all involved. Beyond the injuries from a possible fight, dogs and seals rarely encounter each other, and they each may carry innocuous pathogens that are not a problem for the host but might have dire disease consequences for the other. In the 1980's, a variation of canine distemper nearly wiped out the harbor seal population in the Baltic Sea off of Scandinavia.

Harp seals are by far the majority of the wintertime visitors, but another regular seal species visiting Massachusetts are hooded seals. This seal can weigh up to 700 pounds, but most of the young adults seen in New England are in the 300 pound range.

Around Valentine's Day, a 250 - 300 pound  male "hoodie" hauled out on a beach in Salisbury near the MA/NH border.

Hooded seals have a bluish tinge to the light base part of their coat while also featuring a swirly black camouflage pattern over it. They are called "hooded" as the males have very loose skin around their snout which can be blow up to the size of a volleyball, if they feel threatened.

The home range of both harp and hooded seals are on the ice floes off the Canadian Maritime Provinces. As the warm weather starts to arrive in late March and early April, these seals will not find the oncoming spring attractive and will swim back across the Gulf of Maine.

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