Seals loved by naturalists but not always fishermen

Seals are one of the most common marine mammals found in our local waters; they are also a controversial issue to many people

CUTE HARBOUR SEALS compete with anglers for the fish they both prize so highly. The Pacific harbour seal

CUTE HARBOUR SEALS compete with anglers for the fish they both prize so highly. The Pacific harbour seal

Seals are one of the most common marine mammals found in our local waters; they are also a controversial issue to many people.

Seals are a wildlife species that are loved by many naturalists but fishermen are not so enamoured.

However, these animals are a very important part of the food chain providing food for the orca whales and many other marine mammals. Seals also provide important information on the health of the ocean and shores.

It is hard not to find these creatures enchanting, especially when they are just pups, They often appear helpless and vulnerable and it is often hard to know if the seal is in distress or in need of our help.

Vancouver Island waters are home to a variety of seals. The Pacific harbour seal is the best known and is classified as a “true or walking” seal; as elegant as they are in water, they are very clumsy on land.

Harbour seals are unable to support their bodies on their front flippers, which means they have to wriggle themselves along the ground using their back flippers flopping forward on to their bellies.

These seals have silver grey fur complete with dark spots and splotches. Their fur becomes quite light when they are hauled up out of the water.

Occasionally we see northern fur seals, stellar sea lions and on southern Vancouver Island elephant seals. Stellar sea lions are classified as “walking” seals; lifting up their bodies on their long front flippers they can move their lower bodies along like a caterpillar.

There is a permanent summer gathering of stellar seal lions in Fanny Bay, where they loudly communicate to each other. Others can be seen around Point Holmes, Campbell River and Quadra Island.

All seals are streamlined water machines with torpedo-shaped bodies that are perfectly designed for speed and agility when swimming, diving or fishing.

Harbour seals are mainly found in coastal waters that provide rocks, beaches, estuaries, and especially harbours, where food is often plentiful.

Spending equal time in and out of the water, they have favourite haul-out places and can often be seen atop rocks looking like perched bananas. They will bask in the sun on low tide and return to the water at high tide.

A unique feature of seals is the ability to lower their heart rate, which allows the seal to sleep subconsciously in the water and also allows them to rise to the surface to breathe. Seals can dive to a depth of 450 metres and stay under water for up to 40 minutes.

Long whiskers are equipped with sensitive nerves that help the seal sense pressure changes, which alert them to potential prey. Although salmon is their favourite meal, they do eat a variety of other local fish as well as octopus and squid. Large appetites require between two and three kilograms of seafood per day.

Breeding season for seals takes place between June and September and populations seem to fluctuate depending on food or other conditions.

This year, MARS has rescued only two seal pups. Other years we have reached 30, which would indicate they are not in our area this year.

We may also be able to attribute this decline in numbers to better public awareness. Two years ago, MARS successfully received funding from Shell Environmental Fund to launch a public awareness program on what to do if you find seal pups on the beach or shoreline.

Signs were put up on local beaches and informational pamphlets were also available.

Females will often leave their pups above the high tide mark to go hunting; on her return she will nurse the pup until it is strong enough to follow her in the water. Pups need the antibodies that are stored in the mother’s milk to fight off infection and boost the immune system.

If the pups are relocated or removed from the beach, often the mother will not return to take care of them. A healthy seal pup should be plump, no wrinkles; these would denote dehydration.

Their eyes should be bright not cloudy and there should be no mucous around the nostrils. Listen carefully to the seal breathing, rasps or coughs can indicate pneumonia or other lung diseases, all of which demands immediate treatment with antibiotics.

• • •

Please call MARS to report the pups and wait, if possible to keep pets and people away. The pups are sent to the Vancouver Aquarium, where there are seal specialists to care for them. To report injured or orphaned seal pups please call 1-800-304-9968.

For more information visit our web site at www.wingtips.org. Although we do not rescue adult seals, please report any marine mammals that have been caught in fishing nests or entangled in lines. Seals are also vulnerable to lacerations from boat propellers.

Sandy Fairfield is the educational co-ordinator for the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS). The MARS column appears every second Thursday.

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