See a seal? Leave a seal: Interview with a "Seal Sitter"

Harbor Seal PupsIt’s the tail end of Harbor seal pup birthing time in the Puget Sound in Washington State and perhaps in your area, too. If you frequent the beaches, as we do, you’ve probably seen a seal pup resting peacefully on the shore. The resting pups are often so still and quiet they can seem injured or even dead. Truth is, they “haul out” to get warmth and rest while mom is away. Often they are left for long hours while mom fishes. Extremely vulnerable to the perils of humans and their dogs, only 50% of the pups survive their first year. In response to a growing need to protect the vulnerable pups, a group of volunteers called “Seal Sitters” take turns sitting with the seals day and night, watching over them, and keeping them safe while the pups grow.

Seal Sitters was formed in 2007 when seal pups began appearing on the urban beaches of West Seattle. A cute curiosity, the pups were often surrounded by alarmed or inquisitive humans. A group of animal lovers contacted NOAA for advice and soon Seal Sitters was formed.

The Seal Sitters’ goal is simple – protect the pups from curious onlookers, well meaning individuals who want to “help” the pups, and dogs. Additionally, Seal Sitters educates the public about seals and their habits, assess the health of the pups, and provide key data to government agencies and biologist who seek to improve our marine eco system.

We interviewed a volunteer seal sitter to find out what she does, how she likes it, and her perceptions of how the public treats the work that she does to protect the seals.

Scuba Gadget (SG): How/why did you start seal sitting?

JW: I saw an ad somewhere of a meeting to introduce people to the Seal Sitters organization. It’s a West Seattle phenomenon associated with NOAA

SG: So, what’s your role in Seal Sitters? How do you help protect the pups?

JW: Most people think they’re dead or want to save them. They are amazed when they find out they rest for HOURS.

SG: Yea, we made that mistake about a year ago finding a baby seal on the beach that looked abandoned…we called some animal shelter and they told us that that the mom camps them on the beach while she goes fishing and to just leave the pup alone.

JW: (My grandchild) and I helped with one on Friday that slept off and on from noonish till one in the morning when Mom showed up (we were only there for a few hours). The story is on the blog on that site. Pretty cool. Makes you feel important.

SG: What tasks do you perform?

JW: Our job goes like this: Safety first. So make sure we are safe and the seal is safe. If not, we call NOAA. Then we rope off an area as wide as is practical. The recommended distance is 100 yards but in some areas, like boat ramps in a busy parking lot, that’s not feasible.

Then we “educate”. We are given pamphlets and flyers with all sorts of info to give interested folks. We are also supposed to recruit. There is a need for lots of people during the pupping season because not everyone can drop what they’re doing at a moment’s notice. Right now is the middle of the pupping season in this part of the sound.

SG: OK, you are given pamphlets…what about tape for cordoning off a seal or other supplies?

JW: At this point there are a couple ladies who are “in charge” and a few people with the task of making sighting runs early every morning and at different times throughout the day. The ladies in charge bring the tape, cones and materials once they get the call from the sighters or local folks who see one. Then we, the newer volunteers get scheduled in to buffer the seal from the public. There are also a couple people who are tasked with the photographing and communicating with NOAA biologists if the need arises.

SG: What kind of need would warrant taking pictures?

JW: If a seal pup is badly injured or entangled or in a very unsafe situation or otherwise in obvious distress.

SG: How long are your “shifts?”

JW: Our shifts are whatever we feel we can volunteer. The whole thing is volunteer run. They are grateful for any time people can spare.

SG: What is the most rewarding part for you?

JW: So far it’s to see a live wild animal. I love tracking land animals and have tracked MANY but I rarely see one in the wild. To get a chance to be with one in real time is very cool.

The public is also very interesting. I’m kind of a people watcher anyway and the various reactions we get are really telling.

SG: Such as?

JW: A couple with two large dogs saw a seal pup before the tape was put up and were standing over it with the dogs sniffing and salivating. When the Seal Sitter at the scene came over and explained it was rest and not dead they moved back with their dogs and were very apologetic and understanding.

But another time we had the tape in place and materials and Seal Sitters handy and ready to answer questions when a fisher man stepped over the tape and walked within a couple of feet of the pup, ignoring our request to stay outside the taped area. “Aren’t you being a bit excessive?” he huffed as he continued on to his boat.

Another fisherman said he saw the seals (and sea lions…they are all one to him) as the scourge of the sound, destroying the environment for all. I imagine he means they get more fish than he does, but the politics are here just like the struggle with people and wolves in Idaho and Montana.

SG: Oh I imagine so….

JW: I was a little dismayed to find that out. I find myself in the weird place of trying to think like the fisherman (or hunter) to see where a bridge can be made. It’s all about not wanting to, or knowing how to communicate.

SG: Our time is up. It’s good that you and others are doing this work. Thanks for sharing!

JW: You are welcome!

If you are interested in becoming a Seal Sitter in the Puget Sound area, contact info@sealsitters.org. If you find a stranded seal on the beaches of West Seattle, call 206-905-SEAL (7325). If you live in the Puget Sound and see a seal (or any marine mammal) that is injured or at risk of injury or harassment from humans or other animals call the NOAA Stranding and Enforcement Hotline:1-800-853-1964.