EDGARTOWN — On a cloudy day in mid-May, David Nash makes what has become almost a daily trip to South Beach, responding to a call about a distressed seal that has hauled itself out of the ocean. He arrives with a camera, a tape measure, grease pencils, and a list of observations he must make.
The seal looks at Nash with big dog-like eyes, absent any apparent alarm. This tells him that this seal might be the same one reported earlier in the week at a different location. The seal is getting used to human interaction — which actually isn’t a good thing.
“People come to the beach. They think they know what to do. They want to do something. Usually, its the wrong thing,” Nash says.
Nash, a retired biologist, is one of about 35 New England Aquarium volunteers on Martha’s Vineyard who are trained to observe, assess, record, and in some instances, help rescue marine mammals that turn up on the beaches, according to Kerry McNally, the biologist who supervises field volunteers for the aquarium’s rescue and rehabilitation department.
The aquarium is responsible for the welfare of marine mammals from Maine to Plymouth. The jurisdiction does not include Cape Cod or Southeastern Massachusetts, which is handled by another agency (The International Fund for Animal Welfare) but includes Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Because of the logistics of getting out to the islands from Boston, McNally says they rely heavily on trained volunteers as first responders.
When marine mammals — seals, dolphins, porpoises, and whales — turn up on beaches, the aquarium needs a volunteer to assess the situation, whether the animal is healthy or in need of rescue.
Volunteers are also asked to collect data on the marine mammal corpses found on beaches so that the aquarium can see trends in the population, McNally says.
The data, which is recorded nationally, is useful in learning about potential diseases that may be killing marine animals, a new strain of influenza, for example, as well as human interaction — entanglement in fishing lines — or worse.
Nash, who lives in Edgartown, keeps his distance as he circles the animal, snapping photos and taking notes.
It’s a gray seal, he says, about 1 year old and molting. This natural process of shedding its coat suggests the seal is healthy, as it requires a lot of energy. In fact, it stirs so many hormones and takes so much energy that it may be the reason the seal is on the beach. Most likely, the seal needs a nap.
Nash points to the seal’s belly. By its shape, he can tell the seal is full and well fed. He has concerns about one of the seal’s eyes, which looks a little cloudy. He makes a note of that and will report his observations to McNally at the aquarium, with whom he has already conferred several times during the week.
If the animal were sick and in need of medical care, the aquarium would come and transport it to one of its rehabilitation hospitals, McNally says. But the goal is to try to avoid unnecessary human intervention.
“Seals heal really well in nature. Sometimes staying in their own environment is better than the stress of a transport and human handling.” McNally says.
Atlantic gray seals were once so abundant that Massachusetts and Maine placed bounties on them. An estimated 72,000 to 135,000 of the animals were exterminated in the bounty hunt between 1888 and 1962, according to a paper published in The Northeastern Naturalist in 2009.
The seal population was never endangered, according to Gordon Waring, research fisheries biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Woods Hole, but it was depleted. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 made human harassment of the seals illegal — among other things, mandating the 150-foot distance that Nash observes as he circles the animal.
Gray seal populations have recovered, and NOAA says the current number of the western Atlantic stock of gray seals, which includes eastern Canada and northeastern United States, is unknown, but estimates that it is greater than 250,000.
Not everyone is happy about this robust recovery. “When people complain about seals today, they mean the gray seal,” Waring says. Unlike harbor seals, which migrate north in the summer, the gray seal sticks around the coastal areas during the busy tourist season.
Also unlike harbor seals, gray seals congregate in colonies to breed, most notably in Chatham and on Muskeget Island, off the tip of Nantucket. The most recent NOAA “snapshot” aerial survey of gray seals in “peak pup” season estimated 15,000 on the Cape and island beaches on a single day, according to Waring.
The seals have been blamed for depleting fishing stocks, attracting great white sharks, negatively affecting recreational fishing, and causing high fecal counts on the beach, Waring says.
The increased number of seals means more opportunity for human interaction — some malicious, some just confused. In 2010 and 2011, the International Fund for Animal Welfare marine mammal rescue and research team reported that eight seals washed up on the Cape with bullet holes in their heads. In May, a bunch of apparent drunks in a pickup truck in Edgartown thought they were helping a seal by dragging it back into the water, Nash says.
The urge to help the seals is common, he says. And misguided.
Unlike whales and dolphins, seals are only semi-aquatic. In other words, it is perfectly natural for them to haul themselves onto shore. “A lot of people walking on the beach don’t know it’s OK for seals to be there, resting,” says McNally. Beached seals do not need to be covered with a blanket, fed, or helped back into the ocean. “You don’t want them to go into the water again until they are ready. The reason they are out is that they need a rest.”
Even getting close enough to get a good photograph can stress out a seal, Nash says. Allowing dogs to get close to a seal is bad for both animals. Contact with seals or their feces can transmit diseases to dogs.
Since seals often fish in the same waters as commercial and recreational fisherman, problems arise. In April, a seal turned up on Philbin Beach in Aquinnah entangled in rope and fishing line. The aquarium dispatched volunteers.
One of the volunteers, Andrew Jacobs of Vineyard Haven, is a biologist working with the Wampanoag Tribe’s Natural Resource Department in Aquinnah.
As part of his job with the tribe, he has access to equipment that comes in handy on a rescue, such as boats and all-terrain vehicles. He and two other volunteers who also work for the tribe, Curtis Chandler and Bret Stearns, found the gray seal pup with a rope around its neck and completely entangled in fishing line.
The three men had to pin the seal between a special nylon board with handles to immobilize it and keep it from biting, and then cut the line with surgical scissors.
Once the seal was free, the volunteers had to assess its health. Although it was stressed out from its ordeal as well as from its rescue, it had no serious cuts or infections and looked healthy, Jacobs said. They decided the best medicine for the seal was to stand back and allow it to lumber out to sea.
Volunteers apply for the aquarium program online and are interviewed by the volunteer office and again by McNally before they are accepted. The training is all day, encompassing everything from species identification to how to talk to the public on the beach. “A big part of the work is educating the public,” she says.
Volunteers must be recertified every three years. “We are looking for like minds,” she says.
Not all volunteers are biologists, but they share a passion for the environment. Ron Domurat does the bookkeeping for Larry’s Tackle Shop in Edgartown but he was working for the Trustees of Reservations, a conservation group, when the aquarium ran a class for volunteers and he immediately signed up for the training.
Like Nash and Jacobs, he’s always loved the ocean. He considers it an important contribution to collect data on the marine animals that wash up on shore, but hopes one day to be involved in the saving of a live one.
Megan Ottens-Sargent of Aquinnah is an art gallery owner, but has always been interested in conservation. She was involved in the Moshup Trail conservation project and was a committee member at the Massachusetts Audubon Felix Neck Sanctuary when she signed up for the aquarium training program two years ago.
“What I really enjoy about this work is that I learn so much from the scientists and the biologists at the aquarium — about the animals, the science, and the regulatory side of things,” Ottens-Sargent says.
“One of the things that we all have to recognize about a seal is that the beach is its natural habitat. They are large animals, yes, but they do belong on our beaches.”
What should you do if you spot a seal on the beach?
Watch quietly from at least 150 feet away.
Keep dogs away from the seal.
Do not pour water on the seal or try to cover it with
a towel or blanket.
Do not try to make the seal move.
Remember that it is illegal to disturb seals and other marine mammals.
Take notes on the location, size, coloring, and behavior of the seal, especially if it looks sick, injured, or underweight, and call the New England Aquarium hot line: 617-973-5247. For beaches in the Elizabeth Islands or the south coast of Massachusetts, call the International Fund for Animal Welfare marine mammal rescue and research team: 508-743-9548.
Source: New England Aquarium