At this time of year, we scan the water for newborn Harbor seals snuggling with their mothers. Occasionally, we hear the cries of baby seals, who sound much like human infants, bleating for their mamas. Harbor seal pups may haulout (come ashore) in the same place for several days or weeks at a time; this does not mean they are abandoned. Often the public does not realize that hauling out is normal behavior; thus, calls to stranding responders increase.
Evidently, because Odin and I have a low profile on social media at present, Islanders are confused about whom to contact locally regarding seal pups on land. I am the Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator for Vashon, and Odin is also a stranding responder. We are the only authorized stranding responders on Vashon. We collaborate with NOAA Fisheries, Cascadia Research Collective, and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on stranding response. We have been stranding responders since 2007.
Our phone number for whale sightings, seal pups, and strandings is printed in The Loop and in Destination Vashon: 206-463-9041. In addition, calls to the West Coast stranding hotline at 1-866-767-6114 are forwarded to us in a timely manner. Marine mammal photos emailed to Vashonorcas@aol.com are valuable for ID purposes. In reporting a sighting or stranding, be specific: date, time, location, travel direction, species description, number of whales/seals/etc., and behavior observed.
When Vashon stranding calls are misdirected to unaffiliated, unauthorized individuals and groups, our response time is delayed. A “wildlife responder” is not equivalent to a trained marine mammal stranding responder. Dubious advice and, worse, inappropriate interventions espoused online by pseudo-experts could endanger or even kill our marine mammal friends. Our goal is to avert Harbor seal mom and pup separations and thereby prevent pups from going to rehab.
Some of the following information is from NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region’s Share the Shore page at
Be considerate of mothers and pups. All seals and sea lions come ashore to rest, thermoregulate, and nurse their young. Mothers typically leave pups behind while they feed offshore — up to 24 hours. Keep your distance so mom can return to care for her pup. People and dogs hovering around a seal pup can deter the mother from nursing her baby. Disrupting feeding and maternal bonding jeopardizes pup survival.
Mothers nurse their pups for 4 to 6 weeks and then the little tykes are weaned. Pups in the process of weaning must learn to forage and survive on their own. Weaned pups spend extended hours resting and warming up on shore. Up to 50% of newborn pups will not survive their first year of life.
Many Harbor seal pups are too young to possess protective wariness (escape response) and may not flee when approached. Some pups attempt to suckle shoes or other inanimate objects – if a pup is trying to nurse on your shoe, you are WAY too close.
Harbor seals use log booms, docks, and diverse shoreline habitat — beaches, rafts, boat ramps, stairs, bulkheads — every day to thermoregulate and rest. Earlier this month, I counted 16 seals hitching a ride on two logs drifting through Dalco Pass. Each log held 8 seals jostling for position on the Seal Ferry.
Harbor seals are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Harassing marine mammals violates the MMPA. Harassment or disturbance occurs when people impede a marine mammal’s ability to hunt, feed, rest, breed, communicate, socialize, or care for young. Moreover, frightened seals can bite and transmit diseases to dogs and humans.
Interfering with natural behavior by “rescuing” a seal pup who is not in trouble imperils the pup’s adaptability in the wild. Wildlife rehabilitation centers have severely limited space, and pups released from rehab face an uncertain future. Studies show that they do not hunt as proficiently as wild-reared pups. Humans are poor substitutes for seal mothers.
Please Share the Shore: stay back 100 yards, no selfies with seals, keep dogs on leashes, and if a pup is injured, do not go rogue and attempt to intervene yourself. Contact authorized stranding responders at the aforementioned numbers.