Seals always seem to be surrounded by controversy.
Naturalists love them but recreational fishermen are not so enamored. They are, however, an important part of the food chain providing food for the Orca whales.
Although I see both points of view, seal pups are enchanting and hard to ignore, appearing so helpless and vulnerable.
Vancouver Island waters are home to a variety of seals, the most common being the Pacific Harbour seal, also known as a true and crawling seal.
Occasionally, we see the Northern Fur seal and Stellar sea lions, which are easily identified by their size and brown coloration.
Harbour seals have unmistakable silver gray coats that are adorned with a variety of darker spots or splotches. All seals are streamlined water machines with torpedo-shaped bodies that are perfectly designed for speed and agility when diving and swimming.
Stellar sea lions are classified as “walking seals” and appear to walk by lifting up the front of their bodies supported on long front flippers and moving their hindquarters forward much like a caterpillar.
In comparison, harbour seals are very clumsy on land and are only able to move by flopping on their bellies.
Coastal waters near the shoreline are the favourite habitat of these seals. They prefer sandy beaches, mud flats, bays, estuaries and of course marine harbours.
Harbour seals spend equal time in and out of the water and can be seen off Point Holmes and along the Campbell River shoreline at low tide when they look like bananas perched atop a rock as they bask in the sun.
By dramatically lowering their heart rate, harbour seals are able to sleep in the water; they subconsciously will rise to the surface to breathe. This species of seal are deep divers attaining depths in excess of 450 metres, and they are able to stay under the water for approximately 40 minutes.
Long whiskers are equipped with sensitive nerves which help they seal sense pressure changes in the water, indicating the presence of prey. Known for their partiality for salmon, harbour seals are actually opportunistic feeders, eating flounders, sole, hake, cod, herring, octopus and squid.
They have large appetites, consuming between two and three kilograms of seafood a day. In British Columbia, seal pup season usually runs from June to September. Little is known about the mating habits of the seals, which takes place underwater in their territory.
Harbour seal pups are born on land and can crawl to the water and swim right after their birth. Pups can weigh up to 30 pounds at birth (adults can weigh up to 180 pounds); premature births are quite frequent, and their white or “lanugo” coats easily identify these pups.
MARS has already rescued two seal pups this month, and in past years, we have rescued up to 30 in a season. Two years ago, with funding from the Shell Environment fund, we launched a public awareness campaign, posting signs and distributing informational pamphlets.
This has made the public much more aware of the needs of the pups and we are called promptly to assess the need to intervene.
Female seals will leave their babies to go hunting on the high tide and will return at low tide to nurse the pup. This is often mistaken for the mother abandoning the pup.
Pups need the antibodies that are found in the mothers’ milk to help boost their immune system, and if the mother is scared away by humans or dogs, she may not return to her pup.
Cloudy eyes and large amounts of mucous around the nostrils are indications of sick seal pups; seals are very prone to respiratory diseases, some of which can be transmitted to humans. When seal pups come to our centre, they are given fluids and stabilized, then promptly relocated to the Vancouver Aquarium or Salt Spring Island, where they specialize in raising pups to return to the wild.
Do not approach seal pups on the beach. Please call MARS to report seals that may need help, and keep children and dogs away from the pups.
Please visit our booth on Canada Day at Lewis Park to find out more about our society’s work. To report injured or orphaned wildlife, please call 1-800-304-9968. For more information, visit www.wingtips.org.
Sandy Fairfield is the educational co-ordinator for the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS). The MARS column appears every second Friday.