Bethany Beach gets a visit from pinniped guest


An approximately 1-year-old harp seal was spotted numerous times on the south end of Bethany Beach’s shoreline on Monday, March 10, prompting Suzanne Thurman, the executive director of the Lewes-based Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation (MERR) Institute, to come investigate the animal’s condition and whether the group should take action to assist it.

Coastal Point • Shaun Lambert: A 1-year-old harp seal takes a peek at observers on Monday, March 10, during one of several rest stops it took on the sand in Bethany Beach.Coastal Point • Shaun Lambert
A 1-year-old harp seal takes a peek at observers on Monday, March 10, during one of several rest stops it took on the sand in Bethany Beach.

“She’s moderately underweight,” Thurman reported Monday afternoon after arriving on the scene at the beach off of Ashwood Street in Bethany.

Thurman said the seal’s condition was not immediately concerning, since its weight was not significantly below what she would expect, nor was it moulting — the term for the seals’ annual shedding of old hair.

“She’s alert, which is a good sign,” Thuman said.

Indeed, the young seal lifted its head from the sand at the top of a rise between the shoreline and a tide pool to observe the observers on Monday afternoon, shortly before returning scrambling into the water again — one of several times it had done so on Monday, according to Thurman.

“She’s been in and out of the water all day,” Thurman said, adding that the seal appeared to be using the tall towers of Sea Colony as a landmark for the beach location it wanted to use as a resting spot.

Thurman said the “hauling out” behavior witnessed Monday was not entirely normal but emphasized that seals must return to land to rest, lest they drown. She said young harp seals often flee the pupping grounds in the northwest Atlantic at this time of year to avoid aggressive adult males and that this one had likely been swimming for a long time — explaining somewhat her need to rest on a populated beach during the day, if not necessarily her underweight condition.

The seal was one of about 20 such animals to have been reported in the last two weeks, Thurman said.

On Tuesday, March 11, a similar-looking harp seal beached itself to the north of Bethany, Thurman reported.

“It hauled itself onto the beach a little further north, about at Keybox Road in Delaware Seashore State Park,” she said. “It was still there this morning,” she added Wednesday afternoon.

“We’re hoping it got a little rest,” Thurman said, noting that MERR volunteers had reported the animal’s appearance to be very similar to that of the seal sighted in Bethany Beach on Monday and that she presumed it was the same animal.

“It seemed to be fine. It seemed to be healthy,” she said.

Thurman had earlier confirmed that the Bethany Beach seal was not the same animal released by rescuers from the National Aquarium at Baltimore last week. That animal, a larger harbor seal originally beached Jan. 2 in Ocean City, was fitted with a tracking device after its rehabilitation and released off the Maryland resort.

While the Maryland rescuers released that rehabilitated harbor seal, they also discovered a second injured seal, which they then took back to the aquarium for rehabilitation.

Seals, whales, dolphins keeping MERR busy

Like the National Aquarium rescuers, Thurman and her volunteers have had a busy few weeks.

Thurman left the scene of the Bethany Beach seal sighting on Monday evening for Cape Henlopen, where for the second time in several weeks, a dead harbor porpoise had washed up on the beach.

“It’s that time of year,” she said.

Thurman said there had also been a couple reports of whales off the Indian River Inlet on Tuesday.

“We’re trying to find out if they’re right whales, like the ones that came into inlet last year for feeding,” she said.

Highly-endangered North Atlantic right whales — the more endangered of two right whale species — are thought to number only about 350 in total population now, due to heavy hunting. They migrate north from waters off Florida and Georgia in mid-February.

A confirmed sighting of a North Atlantic right whale has not been made in nearby Delaware waters in 10 years, and the unique feeding excursion last January both thrilled and concerned those monitoring the sighting. A female North Atlantic right whale was killed by boat strike off Ocean City in 2002.

“Fortunately, everything in last few days has been healthy,” Thurman said Wednesday.

Marine animal rescuers along the Mid-Atlantic coast have had a busy time of it lately. Along with the harbor seal release, the sighting of the harp seal in Bethany and to the north, and the discovery of the two dead porpoises, rescuers have been attending to some common dolphins that stranded themselves in a creek near Virginia Beach, Va.,

“They seemed to be unhealthy,” Thurman noted of the Virginia dolphins.

“We expect this to go on for the rest of this month,” she added, as the busy time of the year for migrating marine mammals hits the area.

Public encouraged to report sightings

Thurman praised this week the increased reporting of marine animal strandings to MERR by the public in recent years and asked that anyone seeing a seal, whale or other marine mammal continue to call MERR’s 24-hour hotline at (302) 228-5029 to make a report.

Anyone seeing a beached marine animal should stay downwind and well away from it, Thurman warned, to ensure the animal can rest in comfort — as well as their own safety. “They can bite and can carry diseases,” she emphasized.

Harp seals are less aggressive than other species and are less apt to retreat from humans, according to MERR. When approached, they will often lift their head and follow observers with their eyes. Open-mouth displays and vocalizations are signs that observers have approached too closely.

According to MERR, harp seals — also known as Greenland seals — are one of the four species of seal that occur in Delaware waters during the winter months.

Seals are semi-aquatic animals, so it is normal for seals to occasionally “haul out” and spend some time on land, Thurman said. Seals will do this for a variety of reasons, including the need to rest, pup and moult. Seals may also haul out because they are sick, injured or weakened from lack of food.

MERR procedures call for healthy seals to be monitored on the beach until they return to the water.

Adult harp seals are 5 to 6 feet in length and can weigh up to 300 pounds, according to MERR. Their coloration is silvery-white with a black wishbone- or harp-shaped marking on the back and dark-colored head.

Pups are known for their white coats, which come in about three days of age.

Harp seal pups are prized by commercial hunters for their fur, with hundreds of thousands estimated to be killed each year for the fur trade. Harp seals range through the northwest Atlantic, and concentrate their breeding and pupping from the Arctic to Newfoundland, Labrador and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

At about 2 million in number, the harp seal is considered threatened, according to NationalGeographic.com.

For more information on MERR, visit the Web site at www.merrinstitute.org.