Beached seals should be viewed from distance
As oceanographers, we believe in making use of every opportunity that presents itself to introduce children to the wonders that the ocean has to offer. Countless successful environmental education programs suggest that children who feel personally connected to nature become passionate stewards for our environment.
An example of taking advantage of such an opportunity appeared on the front page of last week’s Press in the form of a photo titled “Sunset Seal.” It showed several children surveying a harp seal that their parents had discovered on Sunset Beach. While turning an encounter with a marine mammal into a learning experience for children is admirable, in this instance, the learning experience should have occurred at a respectable distance.
All marine mammals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. This law makes it illegal to touch, disturb, feed or otherwise harass marine mammals. According to the Protected Resource Division of the NOAA Fisheries Service, harassment of a seal occurs when “your behavior changes their behavior.”
It is common for seals to haul out on land for rest, temperature regulation, social interaction or to avoid predators. Rest is something that seals are not able to achieve when they are continuously approached, and exhaustion makes them vulnerable to predators and illness. NOAA recommends a minimum safe viewing distance of at least 150 feet.
Other important guidelines are never attempt to feed seals, keep noise to a minimum, and always keep pets on a leash when approaching a haul-out area.
Some warning signs that your presence is causing a seal unnecessary stress include movement back into the water, increased vocalization, or disturbance from a normal resting position – for example, if it lifts its head and stretches its neck to watch you. It is important to remember that seals are wild animals and, although they may look adorable, if they feel threatened they can bite you or your pet.
For those interested in additional information, NOAA has published a complete set of seal watching facts and guideline that provides an excellent resource for responsible viewing. To find it, search “NERO seal watching guidelines PDF” on Google.
Both authors have a Ph.D. in oceanography from the University of Rhode Island.