Seal migrates from spillway to Coursey Pond


This adult female harbor seal, lounging on the shores of the Coursey Pond spillway last week, hopped out of the spillway on Saturday, moved up the drive, went across Canterbury Road and then slid down the boat ramp into Coursey Pond. (Submitted photo, MERR Institute/Julie McCall)

FELTON — In the thick of the snowfall Saturday morning, Felton resident Chris Lambert came up to an unusual animal crossing on Canterbury Road by Coursey Pond.

He was driving south toward Milford when he noticed that several cars had stopped by the bridge — one oncoming car swerving a bit to avoid something.

“The vehicles in front of me started going around something,” he said. “It looked like a body sitting there, so I was wondering if someone got hit. It was just sitting there in the middle of the road flopping. I was like, ‘Oh man, this is going to be a bad day.’”

A moment later, Mr. Lambert realized the figure in the road was a seal in transit from the spillway on the east side of the road to the Coursey Pond boat ramp on the west side. Mr. Lambert observed the seal slowly hop its way across the street, slip down the side of the road and hop onto the boat ramp into Coursey Pond.

“Some people had gotten out of their cars to sort of shoo it toward the pond,” he said. “Other people were saying ‘hey, get away from it’. One guy took a selfie with it.”

The seal in question is a female adult harbor seal that the Delaware State News has been reporting on since its arrival in the Coursey Pond spillway over the Christmas weekend. The seal’s migration to the pond proper is a twist in the tale because the animal has taken a step farther away from its natural habitat.

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, which was nearly 10 miles from the bay when it came up the spillway.

“It’s certainly not an everyday or every year occurrence,” said Suzanne Thurman, executive director of the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute (MERR). “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.”

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.

Ms. Thurman speculates that the snowstorm itself is what helped drive the seal farther inland.

“Seals seek deeper water in storms,” she said. “Since the stream wasn’t deep, she went up and over the road to the pond where she could dive deeper.”

The distance from the parking lot adjoining the spillway to the boat ramp on Coursey Pond is an easy two-minute walk for a human, but to a seal, it’s quite a journey — especially having to cross a road that ordinarily has fast-moving traffic on it.

Ms. Thurman said the new situation is the opposite of what MERR and their associated volunteers had been hoping for.

“We hoped that the storm would encourage her to go down the river and back to the bay,” she said.

MERR’s primary concern for the seal now is that in order to return to the bay, it will have to cross Canterbury Road again which will expose it to the risk of being run over.

In the short run, Ms. Thurman says that it’s unlikely that the freshwater 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 easiest to catch and most plentiful regardless of whether or not it’s a freshwater fish. In fact, the quest for food is what brought the seal to the spillway in the first place, Ms. Thurman said.

“Up in the New England region, which is probably where she came from originally, certain fish stocks are very depleted due to some of the big commercial fisheries,” she said. “Some seals are moving further south in search of food.”

Although Ms. Thurman is quick to point out that the public has mostly been very cooperative and respectful of the seal, she did say that moving to the pond will at least give the seal a bit more room to roam and possibly a better place to climb ashore and sleep without being bothered.

“Seals have to be on land to sleep, they’ll drown if they don’t have a good place to climb out,” said Ms. Thurman.

Incidentally, the added roaming room will also make the seal harder to capture and return to the bay — MERR’s eventual plan if they think the seal is in danger.

MERR tried unsuccessfully to capture the seal already when it was still in the spillway.

“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.”

MERR’s ideal scenario would be that warm weather later in the week will encourage the seal to head back to the spillway and then ultimately back to the bay — nature taking care of itself. However, they have begun to form a game plan in case this doesn’t happen.

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

As far as Ms. Thurman is concerned, tranquilizing is out of the question because it can often be fatal; she’d prefer not to consider netting the seal, either, because of the chances of injuring or drowning it.

“NOAA has a unit of specially trained animal response teams that work with them that is advising,” she said. “We’re going to air on the side of what’s safest for the seal, but we’re planning for several different scenarios.”

For now, MERR just 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 (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. 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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