Harbor seal sighted in Coursey Pond spillway

 

The harbor seal is likely swimming near the spillway because the food is plentiful and easy to catch. The MERR Institute judges it to be a juvenile. Because the stream is tidally fed, they expect that it has the ability to return to the bay on it’s own power.
(Submitted photo/The MERR Institute)

FELTON — To Phil Petrucci’s recollection — and that of fellow fishermen — no one has seen a seal come all the way up to the Coursey Pond spillway under the Canterbury Road bridge east of Felton.

With the arrival of a juvenile harbor seal over the Christmas weekend this is no longer the case.

“I came over the week end to go fishing and I had heard that someone saw a seal,” said Mr. Petrucci. “At first I wasn’t so sure because it could have been an otter or beaver or something. I’ve accidentally hooked a beaver on the pond side before.”

On Tuesday morning, though, he was convinced that it was, indeed, a harbor seal.

One fisherman gave an account of how the seal had come completely out of the steam and into the parking lot on the east side of Canterbury road by the spillway, opposite the pond’s boat launch.

“Now that people are showing up to see it, though, it’s hiding in the water,” he said. “Every once in a while, though, it pops its head up — almost looks like a little dachshund swimming around.”

Suzanne Thurman, executive director of the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute (MERR), was alerted to the presence of the seal five days ago.

“We usually try to keep the location of these sightings a secret just to protect the animal, but social media spread this one pretty quick and we can’t do too much about that,” she said.

The MERR Institute is a non-profit “stranding” response and rehabilitation organization dedicated to the conservation of marine mammals and sea turtles.

The organization is authorized by National Marine Fisheries Service and the State of Delaware to be the official “stranding” respondents for the marine mammals and sea turtles of Delaware.

On first hearing that a seal had been sighted in the stream, MERR sent out a volunteer, but they were unable to find it. It wasn’t until Monday that the sighting was confirmed officially.

“We have volunteers on site now to make sure that anyone from the public are informed and don’t do anything to put the seal in harm’s way,” Ms. Thurman said.

Occasionally, seals can be found in the creeks, rivers and streams that join with the bay. But rarely do they make it as far inland as this seal, who’s nearly 10 miles from the bay.

“It’s certainly not an everyday or every year occurrence,” said Ms. Thurman. “We’ve had seals in Little Creek and Leipsic in years past. Sometimes they just find a great spot that’s loaded with food that is easier to catch than in the open ocean. They’ve been known to stay around for a week or more and then they usually go on their way.”

Since the stream adjoining Coursey Pond is tidally fed, Ms. Thurman isn’t too concerned about the seal’s ability to eventually navigate its way back to the bay. She noted that the low salinity content of the stream may eventually have some effect on the seal’s health if it decided to take up long-term residence at the spot.

“The water there will be pretty low on the salinity spectrum, which won’t affect it immediately like a dolphin who’s skin would develop sores,” she said. “Finding a good source of food often outweighs environmental changes like that to a seal, but I’d get a little concerned if it was trying to stay there all winter.”

The bulk of Ms. Thurman’s concern for the seal though lies with its newfound proximity to that most dangerous of creatures — the human being. She points out, that unlike dolphins or whales, a seal is a marine mammal that must physically exit the water at night to sleep on solid ground.

“If it tried to sleep in the water it would drown,” she said.

Ms. Thurman is concerned that activity around the stream may scare the seal to the point where it won’t exit the water as it needs to, or that in exiting it will come into, ultimately fatal, contact with a person,

“It doesn’t have a beach or dock to get out on at this location, so it may come out into an area where people or cars could be — that’s my primary concern,” she said.

While curiosity is really the only reason for the public (who don’t normally fish there) to investigate the sighting, there are three excellent reasons not to:

• Danger to the public

Ms. Thurman points out that seals are not typically aggressive and don’t seek out encounters. But if one is approached and it feels threatened there is a good chance it will bite.

“Hopefully, it’s a healthy seal. We’re not sure yet, but if it has diseases like a bacterial infection or a virus, it may be dangerous to humans,” she said. “People may walk by with their dog as well. And since dogs and seals are a lot alike, diseases between the two are often transferable.”

• Danger to the seal

Few people would ever dream of purposely harming a seal, Ms. Thurman said, but our mere presence can be very stressful for the animals.

“Seals can have something similar to herpes simplex virus and when they are under stress they can have a cold sore eruption which can cause all sorts of problems,” she said. “Stress will negatively affect the seal’s health.”

• It’s prohibited by federal law

Marine mammals are afforded a 150-foot berth by federal law. Offenders who violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) could face civil penalties of up to $10,000 or criminal penalties up to $20,000 plus imprisonment and/or seizure of a vessel and other personal property.

Although Ms. Thurman still feels it’s best to leave the seal entirely alone, enjoying it from a good distance with binoculars or a zoom lens camera is the safest option for observer and observed.

The MERR institute will continue to assess the seal’s presence in the stream and its health. They hope that it soon returns to its customary habitat in the ocean on it’s own initiative. However, if it doesn’t, Ms. Thurman says they will weigh the option of capturing it and returning it to the bay themselves.

“We sometimes use herding boards to sort of lead them into a crate, it would be a challenge in this situation because we’d be so close to the water,” she said. “We haven’t made any determinations yet, it’s too soon. If we need to do that, we’ll save it as a last resort because capturing it would put it under a lot of stress.”

She said MERR will decide to move the seal if the it seems unable to extricate itself, its new location puts it in too much danger or is preventing it from engaging in its normal behaviors.

If members of the public come across stranded whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals or sea turtles, both living and dead, they are encouraged to call the MERR Institute at (302) 228-5029.

MERR’s trained team of responders provides veterinary care for ill and injured marine animals, alleviating suffering and helping them recover. Posting about a sighting publicly on social media may draw visitors to the location who may unintentionally or intentionally cause harm to the animal.

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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