Seal pup sighting a reminder to stay away
HAMPTON — Keep back, call, and contribute.
That's the slogan adopted by the Seacoast Science Center's Marine Mammal Rescue Team, which responded to its first harp seal call on Feb. 8 after the National Marine Fisheries Service authorized the team to begin leading the state's marine mammal rescue effort on Jan.1.
The team, which relies on private and corporate donations, was organized to respond to stranded, injured and diseased seals, whales, porpoises, and dolphins along the state's coastline.
The harp seal that showed up at Hampton Beach last week caught the attention of several beach-goers when it had a rest at the beach.
Rob Royer, a member of the rescue team, monitored the seal until it retreated back into the water.
Harp seals and hooded seals often appear on New Hampshire's coast during the winter months and are known as "ice seals" because they prefer the cold temperatures and are born on pack ice in the Canadian provinces.
They travel to the New England waters in the winter, sometimes from as far north as Greenland, according to Ashley Stokes, coordinator of the Marine Mammal Rescue Team.
Sometimes the seals may be sick or injured and need help.
Adult harp seals are identified by the dark harp-like shape on their coats and are approximately 5- to 6-feet long and weigh around 300 pounds. Females give birth from late February through March.
Stokes stressed the importance of reporting marine mammals seen on shore and warned people to leave them alone and keep at least 150 feet away.
The animals are protected by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.
"So essentially, it is against the law for people to approach, harass, or touch a seal. Technically speaking, harassment would be anything that causes the animal to change its behavior, and that is something as simple as the animal turning its head to look at you or approaching it too closely, causing it to retreat to the water," Stokes said.
While there are no predictable or typical spots where the seals are found most often, Stokes said data have shown that Hampton Beach and beaches in Rye tend to be "hot spots." However, the seal sightings may be more frequent in those sandy beach locations because there are more people visiting and likely spotting them, she said.
Seals are known to give warning signs when people get too close. Stokes said they'll sometimes vocalize or "bark" to let people know that they're too close.
"This can also be a precursor to biting," she said.
Seals may show their teeth and sometimes "wave" at people to encourage them to stay back.
"When they retreat back to the water, especially when they are not necessarily ready to, that's a telltale sign that people are too close; they have no other option but to flee," Stokes said.
With their canine-like teeth, Stokes said seals will bite a person if they feel threatened.
Stokes offered other tips to keep people and seals safe.
"Never try to force it back into the water. Never pour water on it or cover it with a blanket. Never offer it food or water, and most importantly never get too close or touch it. They are wild animals. We have a crew of staff and volunteers who are specially trained to deal with these animals and step in to help them when necessary," she said.
Anyone who sees a seal or any other marine mammal, live or dead, is encouraged to call the rescue team's 24-hour hotline, (603) 997-9448.
More information about what people should do can be found on its website, www.seacoastsciencecenter.org/mmrt.