SEATTLE — Robin Lindsey stands on a beach in West Seattle staring at a three-foot-long gray lump about 100 yards away. A harbor seal, just a few months old, has been resting there all day. It looks like a squirmy puppy with its head sticking out of a furry sleep sack.
Lindsey’s face is full of concern. The newly weaned pup, called Lucy, should be wearing a thick coat of winter blubber, but she is scrawny. She’s either not having luck fishing, or she might be sick.
As the chill of twilight sets in, Lindsey hopes the pup will heave her little body back into the water. Lucy pops her head up, stretches her flipper, settles back down. Not ready to leave.
“Hi, this is Robin with Seal Sitters. Do you guys by any chance have room at the seal hotel?”
She’s calling a rehab shelter where sick or injured seals can go to recover. There’s space for Lucy, but Lindsey must wait until morning. With limited rehab space, a sickly looking seal pup can only be removed from a beach if it’s been out of the water for 24 hours unless there is evidence of human interference or injury.
“I feel just sick leaving her alone here,” Lindsey says. “This park gets dangerous at night.”
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Lindsey is a first responder with Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network, a group of on-call Seattle volunteers who make themselves ready at a moment’s notice whenever someone calls the hotline to report a seal pup or other marine mammal on shore. It’s essentially a daycare for seal pups.
Lindsey is a professional photographer. She helped start the organization six years ago with Seattle writer Brenda Peterson.
Occasionally, Seal Sitters help these marine mammals like Lucy by intervening because of injury or illness. But more often, these volunteers find themselves aiding seals by ensuring that people leave them alone.
“Seals spend half of their life on shore. They nurse. They give birth. They rest. They regulate their temperature,” Peterson says. But most of Seattle’s beaches are barricaded by concrete sea walls, leaving few natural beaches for seals to use. And these shores are also popular locales for playing volleyball, running dogs and throwing frisbees.
Pups are usually silver gray or beige with spots — perfect camouflage for hiding among piles of driftwood. But amid all the beach commotion, a seal pup becomes spectacle, drawing too much attention, getting harassed by children or attacked by dogs. Lindsey says many people don’t realize that the Marine Mammal Protection Act requires people to keep back at least 100 yards. It prohibits touching, feeding or disturbing harbor seals.
The period from June through September is harbor seal pupping season in Puget Sound. Although mother seals usually tend to their young, they sometimes leave the pups alone on shore while they fish. Through the late fall and winter months, the newly weaned pups are left to fend for themselves. They often don’t choose the safest places to haul out and rest, which makes seal sitting a year-round job, Peterson explains.
Over the past six years, Seal Sitters has partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Marine Mammal Stranding Network to train more than 500 people. Volunteers work in four-hour shifts. They tape off a caution perimeter around a pup. Remind people to leash their dogs. Then they sit back and keep watch through binoculars.
“As long as that pup is on the beach and in a vulnerable spot we’re going to have volunteers here on duty,” Lindsey says.
Pups may stay onshore for just two hours, or they may be there for half a day. Volunteers educate beach-goers about seal conservation and the reasons a pup “hauls out,” or comes ashore.
“The average person on the beach sees a little lump and thinks it’s dead or unnatural for the pup to be on the beach,” Peterson says. “That is always a misconception, very rarely is a pup dead. Usually the pup is napping or resting.”
Eleven-year-old Etienne Reche-Ley is already a seal sitting veteran of four years. She started in second grade after she met Lindsey on the beach watching over a seal pup.
“His name was Forte. And he looked very vulnerable because he had a cut on his nose,” Reche-Ley says.
“I saw how much they needed help and how the public did not know anything about them. So I really wanted to help and be part of that,” she says.
When she volunteers, she explains to passersby how seals need to spend time out of the water to thermoregulate, to keep their body temperature within certain boundaries when the surrounding temperature is more extreme.
“Most likely, the seal pups are not harmed in any way,” Reche-Ley says. “They’re just resting mammals and they need to be protected.”
But sometimes the pups are suffering. Washington state has a thriving seal population, but 50 percent of seal pups do not survive their first year. Lindsey sees death regularly — seals cut by propeller blades, strangled by fishing line, or caught in abandoned nets. Young seals are also particularly susceptible to respiratory viruses caused by lungworm and heartworms, and pneumonia. And sometimes seals and sea lions are even shot to death.
As the first responder, it’s Lindsey’s job to decide when to do more than daycare.
“It’s not just all warm and fuzzy, what we do. We love watching after these harbor seal pups, but even on a greater level it’s the science behind it and it’s incredibly important work,” Lindsey says.
The health of these year-round residents provides a window into the health of the greater Puget Sound ecosystem.
“Harbor seals are an indicator species,” Peterson says. “And we need to look to them if they are dying, if they have viruses, if they have strange mortality rates.”
Seal Sitters volunteers keep meticulous notes about each seal they encounter. Lindsey takes photos for identification. Each pup is named and its story shared on the Blubber Blog.
This season the Seal Sitters have counted about half the number of pups they usually encounter. And the mortality rate has been double what’s normal, Lindsay says.
“This has never happened before in our five years of documentation,” Peterson says.
Some of the biggest threats to harbor seals include toxic stormwater runoff, sewer overflows, plastic litter, and abandoned fishing equipment. In addition to a higher than average mortality rate, Seal Sitters are seeing higher than average numbers of emaciated seal pups — pups like Lucy.
The night after Lindsey left Lucy on the beach, she had a hard time sleeping, worrying about the scrawny pup. The next morning Lindsey was awake when she received a call from another Seal Sitter who lives near the beach where Lucy spent the night.
“Lucy’s not there,” he told Lindsey.
That’s a good sign. Lindsey hopes it means Lucy felt strong enough to go fishing for herself. But there’s no way of knowing. Lindsey hasn’t seen Lucy since.
People often ask Lindsey when she’s seal sitting if the seals are endangered. And when she says they’re not endangered, they ask her, “So what’s the point?”
Standing on the shore scanning the horizon, Lindsey says, “I can’t believe that people can even ask such a question. It’s amazing to have an opportunity to help any living being survive, but this is a little wild animal. It’s a life-changing thing.”
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