Sun rise and Seal on the beach video Belmar NJ taken March 18th 2011
Q: Should we feed the seal on the beach?
No, seals should never be offered food. Not only is it illegal, but also a seal may become sick from the food offered or may become dependent on humans for handouts. Seals do not normally eat on land and should not be taught to do so.
No, a seal’s body stores enough fat in the blubber layer to allow the animal to go for extended periods of time without eating. In addition, most seals are opportunistic feeders and will consume a variety of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans when they are available to them.
Seals can stay out of the water for extended periods depending on the needs of the individual. It can be completely normal for some species of seals to spend several days to even a week at a time out of the water.
Seal pups spend a very short amount of time with their mothers. The hooded seal, for instance, only spends 4 days nursing from its mother. After that, they are on their own to learn how to hunt and survive. Few seal pups seen on Cape Cod are maternally dependent.
Q: It looks like it is having difficulty moving. Is something wrong with it?
Seals, as opposed to sea lions or walruses, inch along on their bellies. They do not have the ability to rotate their rear flippers forward so that they can walk on them. They also have very short front flippers that cannot support their bodies in an upright position. Seals normally appear very awkward on land.
Q: If the seal is shivering, should we cover it with a blanket?
No, seals should never be covered with anything. Animals use shivering as a means to warm the body. This is a normal process. Placing blankets or towels on a seal can actually be very detrimental. Seals must be able to thermoregulate (control their body heat). Blankets and towels can actually cause a seal to overheat rapidly, sometimes causing death. Shivering can also be a stress-response if people or dogs are approaching the animal too closely. Be sure to maintain a distance of 150 feet from a resting seal.
It can be very difficult to determine the health status of a seal on the beach. We can only assess what is presented to us at the time. Wild animals will mask disease to keep themselves from appearing vulnerable to predators. It would not be responsible to collect every animal on the assumption that it might be ill. An assessment of the animal’s condition, including behavior, body condition, a cursory exam, and monitoring from a distance is the best way to tell if the animal is in need of assistance.
Q: How close can I get to a seal resting on the beach?
The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 was designed to conserve marine mammals and regulate human interactions with them. This law suggests that people maintain a distance of 150 feet from marine mammals, including seals resting on shore, at all times. This regulation not only protects seals from stressful interactions with humans and their pets, but keeps people and pets safe as well. Seals can bite if provoked and may carry diseases that could be transferred to people or other animals. Be a responsible wildlife observer and use binoculars to watch the animal without disturbing its behavior.
Q: What should I do if I find a seal that is in distress?
Keep your distance (150 feet) from the animal and use binoculars to observe its behavior. Call the CCSN Stranding Hotline at 508-743-9548 and provide a detailed description of the animal, its behavior, and its location. CCSN will send out trained personnel to complete a health assessment on the animal. Please DO NOT touch or handle the animal as this will cause unnecessary stress and could further compromise the health of the seal.
Q: What is the difference between a dolphin and a porpoise?
Porpoises are smaller in size, have a bluntly shaped head, a low triangular dorsal fin, and spade-shaped teeth. The only porpoise common to the waters of Cape Cod is the Harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena).
Dolphins are generally larger, usually have prominent beaks, and conically shaped teeth. Several species of dolphins inhabit Cape Cod waters.
Q: What is the difference between a baleen whale and a toothed whale?
Baleen whales (Mysticetes) are large whales which have a specialized method of feeding. Rather than teeth, they have baleen plates, which act as strainers. Mouthfuls of prey and water are gulped into the large mouth, and the tongue is then used to force water out of the mouth while the baleen traps the prey inside.
Toothed whales (Odontocetes) are porpoises, dolphins, and whales of varying sizes. They have cone or spade-shaped teeth used to grasp prey.
Q: Why do mass strandings of dolphins and whales occur?
There are many theories about the causes of mass strandings. Some mass strandings may occur as a result of a single trigger while others may be caused by a combination of factors. Some theories are:
Social structure*: The species that typically mass strand on Cape Cod are the long-finned pilot whale, common dolphin, and Atlantic white-sided dolphin. These species are pelagic (offshore) animals that are highly social in behavior (form tight social groups). Unfortunately, this social bond that serves them so well at sea may in fact be their downfall when they come close to shore. These animals stick together at all times, so if one animal becomes sick or disoriented, the entire group may strand instead of just the one affected dolphin or whale.
Complex topography*: Animals come near shore at different times of the year, possibly to feed, and then become disoriented and trapped by the complex inlets and hook-like shape of Cape Cod.
Extreme tidal fluxes*: Mass strandings often coincide with full and new moon tidal cycles. The extreme high and low tides during full moons allow animals to swim farther inshore than normal, leaving them high and dry when the tide turns. The tidal fluxes on the Cape Cod Bay side are much larger than those on the Vineyard Sound or Buzzards Bay sides, hence the tendency for mass strandings in Cape Cod Bay.
Extreme weather*: High winds and stormy seas can also drive animals farther inshore than usual.
Geomagnetic anomalies: These may confuse the navigational abilities of cetaceans.
Disease: One or more sick animals could cause the entire group to strand.
Injury: One or more injured animals could cause the whole group to strand. Injuries could be either human-induced or naturally caused.
Acoustic disturbances: Since many dolphins and whales rely on sound for navigation, underwater acoustic disturbances may cause disorientation that could result in a stranding. Although suspected in other locations around the world, we have never correlated acoustic disturbances with strandings on Cape Cod. Since the history of mass strandings in this region pre-dates most acoustic testing, it is relatively safe to say that this does not play a huge factor around here.
*these are the most likely causes of mass strandings in the Cape Cod region.
Q: Why do single whales, dolphins, and porpoises strand?
Most whales, dolphins, and porpoises that strand alone strand due to illness or injury. This is true especially when highly social animals strand by themselves; these animals depend on the safety and resources of the group in order to survive and only stray from the group when something is seriously wrong.
Some additional reasons for single strandings are:
Disorientation: Animals may become lost or disoriented.
Inexperience: Newly weaned animals sometimes have a hard time thriving on their own.
Injury: Human-induced or naturally-caused injuries can cause single animals to strand.
Age: Older animals may die of natural causes.
Illness: Sick animals may strand alone.
Parasitic infection: Parasites acquired in their food sometimes overrun the body and cause illness, disease, or acute infections.
Navigational Errors: Pelagic (offshore) animals may have difficulty navigating coastal waters.
Q: Why not just push stranded animals back into the water?
Pushing stranded dolphins and whales off can be a very dangerous endeavor for both the person and the animal involved. Whales and dolphins have extremely powerful tails that can cause serious injury or death to well-meaning humans. Dragging whales and dolphins back into the water can cause irreversible damage to the animals that may seriously compromise their survival rate. In order for the animals to obtain the best care possible, they should be examined by marine mammal biologists and veterinarians and handled by professionally trained personnel. Additionally, years of experience have determined that whales and dolphins that strand in Cape Cod Bay and are immediately pushed off will inevitably re-strand in another location. On restranding, they will usually be too sick or stressed to be good candidates for relocation and another release.
In the past few years, CCSN has been tremendously successful in relocating and releasing mass stranded dolphins. This tactic may seem counter-intuitive but has produced extremely encouraging results. CCSN loads the dolphins into our trucks and trailers and transports them across land as fast as possible to a beach that has deep water access. Through collaboration with the New England Aquarium, some of the animals that we release have been tagged with a satellite transmitter that notifies us of the animals’ locations. By using this technology, we are able to get a better idea of how the dolphins are faring after relocation and release. All the feedback from the satellite tags has indicated that these dolphins are swimming and behaving in a normal manner.
Q: Aren’t there any hospitals for sick dolphins and whales?
No. At this time, there is no rehabilitation space available for whales or dolphins. Small harbor porpoises are the only cetacean species for which rehabilitation space may be available at this time. Unfortunately, facilities and funding are extremely limited for this expensive endeavor.
Q: Can you prevent mass strandings from happening?
CCSN has developed a mass stranding prevention program, to avert strandings before they happen. This is the only successful program in the world to prevent dolphins and whales from stranding. When CCSN receives early warning that whales or dolphins are swimming close to shore in potentially dangerous locations, we respond as quickly as possible. Using small boats and special acoustic devices called “pingers” that emit an irritating, high frequency noise, CCSN herds the animals out of danger and into deeper water. CCSN’s highly trained personnel have years of experience operating boats near small whales/dolphins, and the engine has a propeller guard to further ensure the safety of the animals during the herding process. CCSN’s boats sweep behind the group of animals in a half-moon pattern, encouraging them to swim in the proper direction, away from land.
Q: What should I do if I find a beached dolphin or whale?
Call the Cape Cod Stranding Network’s 24-hr Stranding Hotline immediately: 508-743-9548. Give a detailed description of the location, including directions to the site and landmarks on the beach to help us find the animal(s). Also, please provide both the number of live and dead animals you saw. The CCSN staff members that answer the hotline may ask you for more information regarding the status of the tide cycle, the conditions at the stranding site, and site accessibility for rescue personnel and trucks in order to dispatch the most appropriate response. CCSN staff will then call trained responders that can get on scene as quickly as possible to provide care until staff arrives with the vehicles and equipment. Please do not handle the animals, try to push them back in the water, or move them in any way; they are in need of professional care.