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Paddleboard lesson becomes lesson on seal encounters
KINGSTON — A paddleboard outing turned out to be a lesson in what to do when you find a baby seal.
As children returned to the Kingston dock from their Kingston Adventures paddleboard lesson July 9, a baby harbor seal popped up and began swimming around them. The children and instructors were delighted, and cautious.
"I immediately told the kids to keep their distance away from it," instructor Adam Kirstein said.
But the seal, crying and looking for its mother, crawled up on one girl's paddleboard. Peri Anderson, a 9-year-old student at Gordon Elementary, said she thought it was "really, really cute." But she knew she wasn't supposed to touch it, and she left the seal on her board and climbed onto another student's board.
"She did right thing by trying to get off her board and get onto another child's board to stay away from it," said Beth Brewster, owner of Kingston Adventures. "It was hard for her to do, [the seal was] crying and screaming for help."
Peri said she didn't touch the wild seal so she didn't get germs or "rip" the protective coat.
Kirstein said they towed the board with the seal on it and tied it up at a slip in the marina, and moved the children toward the dock. But the seal followed them, and climbed onto another board. Kirstein said they again tied up the second board away from people.
"My instinct was just like the kids, I wanted to go and pet it," he said. "But I had to fight that urge … on the basis that it would be detrimental to the animal. I had to fight that childlike instinct to go give it a hug and a kiss."
Kingston Adventures staff contacted the West Sound Wildlife Shelter, a rehabilitation and education center based on Bainbridge Island. Volunteers came out to tag the seal.
Mike Pratt, director of wildlife services at West Sound Wildlife, said they work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Pratt said a pup seal had been spotted a few times over a couple of days in the Kingston marina, and think it may have been the same seal.
Pratt said its common for mother seals to "haul out" on beaches or floats and leave their pups while they go forage for food.
Dyanna Lambourn, a Fish and Wildlife marine mammal research biologist, said people should not assume a pup has been abandoned just because they see it by itself. The seal in Kingston was probably less than a week, still nursing, she said.
Lambourn and Pratt said the seal was likely looking for a dry place, and attracted to the noise of the children. When a seal "hauls out" on a beach, float or dock, it is resting and warming up.
"A lot of baby seals don't need help," Pratt said. "People pick them up prematurely…and they can't get back to their mother."
Lambourn said when a seal is reported, whether she or a West Sound Wildlife person respond, they allow 48 hours to give the pup and mom time to reunite.
"The absolute best thing for that pup is for mom to come back," Lambourn said. Dogs or humans — things that scare off moms — need to be removed from the situation before the mom feels safe to come back.
However, Lambourn said someone else interfered with the seal. Kingston Adventures staff reported being told that river otters had come and attempted to attack the pup during the night. Lambourn said river otters are territorial, so its possible, or the otters were just curious.
Either way, a person picked up the pup and put in into a crate in the middle of the night, apparently to protect it from the otters. Lambourn said that is why she chose to take in the seal for rehabilitation — it was unlikely for the mom to come back because of human interference.
"Most people don't realize [seals] spend at least half their life on shore, and we're invading their home by going on the beach," Lambourn said. Federal guidelines state people must stay 100 yards away from any marine mammal.
The seal was taken to PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood, one of two marine mammal rehabilitation centers in the state. The seal will need to be nursed, and once it reaches a certain body weight and size, it will be released.
"This is the time of year when pupping season is happening inside of Puget Sound," Lambourn said. Harbor seals nurse till they're four to six weeks old, after which they are on their own to find food. Nursing season in Puget Sound is over between Sept. 15 and Oct. 1.
West Sound Wildlife returned to Kingston Adventures to talk to the students about the seal, how it was being taken care of, and a "thank you" to the students for what they did.
"They told us the seal was in a good place," Peri said.
"The kids did a good job, and the instructors did an excellent job," Pratt said. "They knew exactly … to leave it alone, pull the kids back [and] isolate the little pup."
To report an abandoned or inured marine mammal around Kitsap County, call (253) 589-7235. Outside of the area, the NOAA hotline will direct you to the appropriate people, at 1-800-853-1964.
For information on Kingston Adventures, visit www.kingstonadventures.com.