A juvenile harp seal waddled up onto a beach in Montauk last Thursday afternoon, February 27, and proceeded to sun itself. The seal was said to be active, climbing all the way up near the dunes, frolicking and basking in the cold, February rays—perfectly normal behavior for seals in these parts.
However, someone saw the seal on the beach, became alarmed and called the police—also behavior that isn’t unusual, according to Ed Michels of the East Hampton Town Marine Patrol.
“We’ll get 15 or 20 of them in a day,” he said of emergency calls about seals on the beach, which are often repeat calls about the same seals.
Mr. Michels said that people have a tendency to get scared when they see a seal on the sand and immediately call authorities. “It’s normal. They’re sunning themselves,” he said of the seals, which tend to appear most around the wintertime. “We tell people: Unless it’s bleeding, leave it alone.”
Southampton Senior Bay Constable Chris Kohnken said that his patrol sometimes responds to two seal sightings per week, but that most of the time the seal appears to be in good health.
“I’d say at least 75 percent of the time they’re up there sunning themselves, just resting,” Mr. Kohnken said, adding that he usually videotapes the seal with his cellphone and emails it to the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation. “It saves them a trip,” he said.
Other seals were found last week on Georgica Beach, Main Beach and Indian Wells Beach, and another was spotted on the sand in Water Mill. The one in Amagansett made its way back into the water, and a couple of others were picked up by the Riverhead Foundation, including the juvenile found in Montauk.
Although the Montauk harp seal appeared to be in good health, biologists from the Riverhead Foundation took it to their facility in Riverhead for observation. As it turned out, the seal was dehydrated and will remain at the foundation until researchers and veterinarians are comfortable with releasing the 18-month-old male.
“He’s doing fine,” Kim Durham, rescue program director at the Riverhead Foundation said. She said that veterinarians did an initial assessment at the beach and then decided to admit the seal for further evaluation. They also recovered the seal found on the beach in Georgica last week and treated it for a swollen flipper. Biologists monitored that seal for two days while it slept on the beach before deciding to admit it.
Ms. Durham agreed that it is very common for seals to come up onto the beaches to sun themselves and warned that people should keep their distance.
“People will engage these animals on the beach if they’re walking with their dog. It might be the first time they’ve ever seen a seal,” Ms. Durham said. She recounted a time when a group of people saw a seal resting on a local beach and dragged it back into the water, which could have been a very traumatic experience for the seal. She said that the people probably naively thought that they were rescuing the marine mammal. “There’s a common belief that people think that seals have to be in the water,” she said.
If a seal demonstrates aggressive behavior, it is a common indicator that it is not sick, according to Ms. Durham, who said foundation workers were called to the scene in Water Mill last week where a seal lying on the sand was very animated, so they left him there.
“He was yelling at us, and he was robust,” Ms. Durham said of the seal spotted by passersby. “He was looking good. We thought, ‘You’re much too vocal to come with us.’ He was just sunning himself on the beach.”
On the other hand, if a seal does not seem to be aware of humans in its presence and it is staring past them or into the distance, it could be a sign that it is ill, and someone should contact local marine patrol or the foundation directly.
The Riverhead Foundation has a 24-hour hotline at (631) 369-9829 for people to call when they think they see an injured seal. A service will put them in touch with a biologist on duty.
“That’s how we’re going to handle what’s likely going to be a busy season this year,” Ms. Durham said.