Scientists Closely Watching Young Seal's Solo Tour of the South's Best Beaches
A small gray seal appears to be on a tour of the South's best beach towns.
Scientists have had their eyes on the wayward juvenile since it was found lethargic in Virginia Beach on February 28. After some observation, veterinarians at the Virginia Aquarium Marine Animal Conservation Center determined that the young male seal needed assistance. With some fluids for dehydration and antibiotics, it was released back into the wild a few days later.
But instead of heading north to his natural habitat filled with rocky outcroppings for him to rest, the seal continued his journey south, puzzling scientists.
"It is not unprecedented, but it is not what we want to see," Susan Barco, research coordinator and senior scientist with the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program, told The State.
Ten days after its release in Virginia, the same seal bearing an orange tag with the number 36 on its left rear flipper, took a break from swimming at Myrtle Beach State Park in South Carolina.
Ann Wilson, a ranger at Myrtle Beach State Park, told WMBF that this is only the second seal she has seen in the 25 years she's been at the park.
Then on Monday, researchers confirmed that same seal was found lounging on the beach on Hilton Head Island. The Hilton Head Sea Turtle Patrol reportedly cordoned off an area of the beach in the Palmetto Dunes Marriott area to prevent curious beachgoers from approaching the seal. Fortunately, Amber Kuehn, a marine biologist with the Hilton Head Sea Turtle Patrol, confirmed to The State that the seal went back into the ocean overnight "as expected."
According to Wayne McFee, research wildlife biologist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the last time a seal was seen on a Hilton Head beach was in 1997.
"This is a yearling, so it's not too surprising that it's trying to poke its head into different places," McFee told The State. "It might just be curious about other things and may end up going back north, which we hope it will at some point."
He said as long as the seal continues to display normal seal behavior and remains healthy, scientists have no plans to intervene.
"This one seems to be doing whatever he feels like," McFee said.
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For now, the biggest risk to the young seal is humans. He's very cute, which means people will likely want to touch him, and, as Kuehn explained, his previous interaction with people appears to have left him unafraid of human interaction.
"It hardly reacted to the people being less than five feet away from it," Kuehn told The State.
But that doesn't mean he can't—and won't—bite. And as a federally protected marine mammal species, it's illegal to touch, feed or harass seals.
If you spot this little guy or any other marine mammal on the beach, Kuehn recommends keeping your distance and calling the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources at 1 (800) 922-5431.