Harbor seal still ‘feeding and cruising’ in Coursey Pond

The adult female harbor seal, first spotted in the Coursey Pond spillway last December, appears to have taken up short-term residence in Coursey Pond. Reports of sightings continue to flow in to MERR, one as recently as last Monday. (MERR Institute/Julie McCall)

FELTON — It was surprise enough when an adult female harbor seal turned up in the Coursey Pond spillway, nearly 10 miles inland, late last December. Even more surprising though was when that seal climbed out of the spillway, crossed over Canterbury Road and finally plunged directly into Coursey Pond via a boat launch.

The mini-migration to the pond proper was witnessed in mid-January during a snow storm. That’s where the seal has been ever since, according to Suzanne Thurman, executive director of the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute (MERR).

“She’s still there, just spending her days feeding and cruising around in the pond,” Ms. Thurman said. “A sighting was called in last Monday.”

Ms. Thurman is frequently contacted about sightings and occasionally has photos submitted — although since moving to the pond, few photographers have been able to capture anything more than the seal’s head poking out of the water as she swims past. Because of her role at MERR, Ms. Thurman has been heavily involved in tracking the seal’s movements and trying to ensure its safety.

MERR is a nonprofit “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 in the state. The organization also operates through a series of dedicated volunteers.

Early on, MERR tried unsuccessfully to capture the seal when it was still in the spillway. Their intent was to return it to the bay.

“To capture it safely, you have to get between it and the water — seals are cumbersome on land, but very agile in the water,” said Ms. Thurman. “We tried to catch her, but she was too close to the water’s edge and too quick.”

Now that the seal moved out of the spillway and into the pond, the added roaming room would make a capture “currently unachievable”, said Ms. Thurman. She notes that tranquilizing is out of the question because it can often be fatal; she’d prefer not to try netting the seal, either, because of the chances of injuring or drowning it.

“We’ve been talking to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) about making a plan for the next step,” said Ms. Thurman.

Jennifer Goebel, a spokeswoman with NOAA, has been working with MERR to build a capture plan, if needed. However, both MERR and NOAA’s hope that the seal will return to the bay on its own.

“Since the seal is still in good body condition and has access to open water, we hope it just decides to move on when it’s ready to,” said Ms. Goebel.

For the time being, the seal seems content to stay put. In the short run, Ms. Thurman says it’s unlikely the fresh water in the pond and the pond fish the seal is feeding on will have a negative effect on its health.

“They are not as susceptible as dolphins are to changes in water salinity,” she said. “Dolphins start to quickly develop skin lesions, but with their thick coats and fur, seals are at much less risk.”

She also pointed out that as “opportunistic feeders,” seals often seek out the food that is easiest to catch and most plentiful, regardless of whether it’s a freshwater fish.

Agreeing, Ms. Goebel said MERR volunteers will have to monitor the seal’s body condition.

“The only thing we would be worried about with a freshwater fish diet is if the seal is getting enough calories,” she said. “Some fish are fattier than others. If the pond fish aren’t enough to maintain the seal, we’ll see a change in its condition. At that point, the seal would probably react on its own though.”

MERR plans to keep the seal under as much observation as they are able with their staff of volunteers. The seal may try to move even deeper inland and navigate its way to Killens Pond, but that isn’t likely to make its situation any more or less dire.

Residents who spot the seal are encouraged to take a photo from a safe distance and report the sighting to MERR at (302) 228-5029. They should keep back though, because seals may bite if they feel threatened or be put under an undue amount of stress if constantly followed by humans. Also, marine mammals are afforded a 150-foot berth by federal law. Offenders who violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act 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. Under no circumstances should anyone attempt their own capture of the seal.

Ms. Thurman stresses that it’s most important for the public to continue to give the seal plenty of space if they see it, and slow down on Canterbury Road as they pass Coursey Pond because, for now at least, it’s a seal crossing.

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