MADISON — A photo of 1-year-old harp seal, lounging in the sea grass at Hammonasset State Park Beach last week, garnered lots of likes and comments on social media, as well as concerned phone calls to Mystic Aquarium Animal Rescue Program.
On Sunday, Jan, 27, walking along the beach with her Labrador mix dog, Ella, Madison resident MaryBeth Giles came across the seal and posted a photo on her personal Facebook. “Saw the little guy on our walk with Ella at Hammonasset today,” she wrote.
But this sighting wasn’t a rare occurrence.
The sea animals may come on land, known as “hauling out,” for a couple hours or even a couple days, but that is very normal behavior, according to Sarah Callan, assistant manager of Animal Rescue Program at Mystic Aquarium.
The harp seal migrates from Canada and Northern Maine, from late January to late March. Callan said seals can swim for very long distances without stopping and coming on land is their chance to rest.
Worried about its safety, Giles did place a call to report seeing the seal.
“It’s important for us to hear from the public if they do see an animal on the beach, we want to know about it,” said Callan. “Even if it’s just a sighting and the animal looks healthy. We do have a database where we record all sighting and strandings, so it’s really important for the public, they’re our eyes out there.”
Reporting can be made by calling Mystic Aquarium Animal Rescue Clinic 24-hour hotline 860-572-5955, ext. 107.
First responders, volunteers who have completed a course at Mystic Aquarium, were contacted to check on this seal to make sure it was healthy and not in any distress.
“They found that the seal was resting and we look for respiratory rates, any discharge or anything externally that would be abnormal, and this animal, we observed normal behavior,” Callan said. “It was resting and it was alert. When people approached the animal, it would lift its head and respond to that.”
While Giles was excited to see the animal, she said she kept her distance.
“I really did try my best to respect the seal,” she said. “I was so excited, I couldn’t believe it. It was looking right at me.”
Madison resident William Richmond visited Hammonasset on Monday and shared his photos of the little pinniped on a Madison, CT Facebook group.
According to Callan, the seal returned to the water Monday night.
The gray seal and harbor seals are seen quite often year-round in the area. Currently, it is gray seal pupping season, Callan said.
“Right now, is when they’re pupping and they nurse for about three weeks or so,” she said. “So, that’s one species that the public may start seeing on the beaches.
“Just like all the animals that we see on the beach we just ask that people stay at least 150 feet away, because they are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It’s not alarming if you see a young animal, about three to four weeks old, a young gray seal pup, because they aren’t with mom that long.”
A warning sign that is often posted near a seal on land states, “Do not approach, touch, feed, or stand over seal!!! Harassing, feeding or injuring seals is illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Please observe wild seals from a distance of at least 50 yards (150ft). Keep pets on leash & limit your viewing time.”
Volunteer Seal Responder Lorrie Shaw expressed her concern about the public’s excitement about seeing the seal photo. She worried about the seal’s safety upon seeing the Facebook photos.
“Frankly, that was my first thought, ‘Oh, no, everyone’s going to want to run out and go see that seal,’ ” she said.
Shaw stressed that keeping dogs on leashes is important to protect other wildlife.
“The dog could harm the seal or the seal could bite the dog, in defense,” she said.
In addition, she said, she urges the public not to post exact locations for the animals’ safety.
Protecting seals is important, said Callan, and she urges the public to call if they come across any seal they may have a concern about.
“It’s just a misconception that when they are on the beach, something’s wrong and I understand if you’re not familiar with seals or that species, that it could be concerning,” Callan said. “This is normal for them to be on the beach and to just give us a call if you see them.”