Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Every now and again, some creature will take a liking to scuba divers
and spend a lot of time with them. In Puget Sound, it's not unusual for
harbor seals to do exactly that.
Walking along Puget Sound beaches, you may see an earless harbor seal face rise from the water. Harbor seals are the most abundant marine mammal along Puget Sound. Although curious, they are shy animals and prefer quiet, unpopulated areas.
Seals like to "haul out" on protected beaches, spits, bars, rocks and log rafts to bask in the sun and sleep. At the slightest sign of danger they will slip back into the water where they swim with power and grace. On land however, seals wiggle and flop along. (Harbor seals do not have rotating hind foreflippers for walking like sea lions.)
Harbor seals often haul out at low tide to digest food, rest, give birth, or nurse young. A high tide haul out is more typical along Hood Canal.
Giving birth or "pupping" occurs in June and July along the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the San Juan Islands. In southern Puget Sound and Hood Canal, pupping takes place July through September. The mother nurses the pup with rich milk for three to six weeks. The highest mortality rate for harbor seals occurs during the first few months of life; pups may be stillborn, premature, or they may starve.
Harbor Seal Facts
# Winged Foot
The harbor seal is the only pinniped that breeds along Puget Sound. Pinnipeds (seals, seal lions, and walruses) spend part of their lives in the water but depend on land to give birth and raise young. The term "pinniped" comes from the latin word "pinna" meaning winged and "ped" meaning foot.
# Small & Spotted
Adults are mottled tan or blue-grey with dark spots, measuring between four and seven feet long, weighing 250 to 300 pounds. To distinguish harbor seals from other pinnipeds along Puget Sound (California sea lions, Northern sea lions, and elephant seals) look for the harbor seal's small size, earless head, and spots.
# Deep diver
The harbor seal can plunge 300 feet and stay underwater up to 28 minutes. It can swim a fast 15 knots.
# White Before Birth
Most harbor seal pups shed a white wooly coat before they are born. Sometimes pups are born in the water. Pups can often swim after birth, when the tide returns.
Protected by Law
Harbor seals sometimes fall prey to orcas (killer whales), sharks, and people. From 1947 to 1960 a bounty was placed on seals because it was believed they ate significant amounts of commercially valuable fish. During that time it is estimated 17,000 seals were killed. Today, seals are protected from killing by the Federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. It is against the law to hunt, capture, kill, harass or otherwise disturb seals or any other marine mammal.
A Harbor Seal on Your Beach...
Harbor seals may haul out almost anywhere along Puget Sound. One may appear on the beach near your home. Often, this is not an emergency -- harbor seals naturally use the beach to rest, give birth, or die.
# Do not disturb
It is against the law to disturb harbor seals and other marine mammals. Do not harass, scare, or separate mothers from offspring. Boats should not come closer than 100 yards of marine mammals.
# To report violations
Report any violations to National Marine Fisheries Law Enforcement at 18008531964.
# To report stranded marine mammals
Dead or dying marine mammals can aid important research. If you find a stranded marine mammal, note the exact location and the condition of the animal. Call the NOAA Marine Mammal Coordinator at (206) 526-6733.