Boaters bring baby seal to shore — but was it really in distress?

Experts say marine mammals should be left alone.

By Robert Mittendorf

The Bellingham Herald

Two apparently well-meaning but misguided boaters kept a baby harbor seal over the weekend and brought it Sunday to the Marine Life Center at the Port of Bellingham — a reminder that experts say marine mammals should be left alone.

Casey Pruett, director of the Marine Life Center, said the couple told her the seal pup climbed aboard their boat while they were fishing Saturday near the Ballard Locks in Seattle. They sailed to Bellingham before contacting anyone, she said.

“Their heart was in the right place,” Pruett said. “You’d think you’d want to get help right away. Clearly the right thing to do is to put it back in the water and take off.”

Pruett said she called the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, an all-volunteer agency that rescues stricken sea creatures. Principal investigator Victoria Souze said the seal pup, which was less than 2 weeks old, was taken to Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Friday Harbor.

Souze said the pup likely was not abandoned, because it appears healthy and well-fed — except for injuries and an infection that Souze suspects the pup suffered while in captivity aboard the boat for 24 hours. She didn’t disclose the names of the people who brought the seal to Bellingham, and said any citations or charges would come from NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency that governs marine mammals.

“It’s a really healthy pup,” Souze said. “It’s obvious that it was nursing and not abandoned.”

Souze said federal law requires people to stay 100 yards away from marine mammals.

“Seal moms park their pups on the beach,” Souze said. “They leave them there while she’s foraging. Don’t touch it. Don’t go near it. Call us. That’s what we’re trained to do.”

Veterinarians were assessing the seal on Monday, Souze said. She was unsure if the animal would survive, but she said Wolf Hollow has a high success rate.

“It should never have been picked up,” Souze said.

Pruett echoes that sentiment. She posted a photo to the center’s Facebook page and advised followers to “keep wildlife wild.” The Marine Life Center is part of the nonprofit Northwest Discovery Project, and its aquariums and touch tank highlight plants and animals of the Salish Sea.

Pupping season started in May and Pruett said she is still seeing young animals locally.

Last year the Whatcom Marine Mammal Stranding Network rescued nine seal pups and took them to Wolf Hollow. According to an Associated Press report last year, there were at least 60 cases in California in 2015 where people either illegally picked up or fed marine mammals. Some of those animals were released; others died in care or had to be euthanized.

“It’s so hard not to anthropomorphize them,” Preutt said. “It’s so cute. In reality, that’s not how that works.”