Babes on the Beach: It’s Harbor Seal Pupping Season in the Salish Sea

In the summer of 1995, I was involved in a summer internship with Beth Mathews, a Marine Biologist and just a stellar human being, through the University of Alaska Southeast. We were conducting harbor seal cow-pup counts in Glacier Bay, at John Hopkins Inlet. I fell in love with animal behavior many times during my life, but that was one of the first times I realized how much there was to learn from individual animals, not just whole taxonomic groups.

A harbor seal pup, pulled those Glacier Bay memories back to the fore of my memory this week. It is pupping season in the Pacific Northwest, the time of year when those sausage-shaped pups with bowling-ball faces haul out on beaches to await mom to return from feeding to nurse. The cow’s milk is about 80% fat, it is so rich that the pups are weaned after about a month to fend for themselves. Although Harbor seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (you cannot approach a seal or seal pup), they are the most common marine mammal in the Salish Sea. Despite this, according to Gary Heinrick of the ORCA Network, about 50% of the pups die in a given year. This brings me to the topic of this post, I received several emails from folks around the island with photos of dead seal pups and inquiries about the local otters, were the otters okay?

The otters on the island are doing well, there is mortality every season for all animals, some due to human disturbance, some due to climate changes, pollution, predation, and others…well, they just get old. Gary Heinrick indicated that last week there were several Biggs Orca (transient orcas – mammal eaters) sightings near Coupeville. Spotters reported harbor seal predation during these sightings.

On Saturday an ocean-front neighbor from one of the high bank homes spotted a harbor seal pup in the intertidal zone and called me to see if it was okay. I walked down the beach, snapped a video with the zoom and sent it to the ORCA Network, who has a group of marine mammal stranding supporters. Here is that video.

Harbor Seal Pup at Admiral’s Cove Beach, Admiralty Bay, Coupeville, WA – August 1, 2020

The pup was not distressed, but did look a little emaciated. From 9:30 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon the pup sunned himself and then returned to the bay muling for the cow. The next morning, during my otter scans at 4:30, I heard the pup muling in the bay; but did not see it until about 5:30 when twilight broke. The pup was still alone. The pup shrugged its way up the beach to rest, then returned to about 60 meters from the beach and proceeded to play with a stick for about an hour. We cannot know if the little fella made it, but here are some photo shots of the observations.