With seals’ winter return, public asked to help tally
SALISBURY — Seals have returned to the Lower Shore’s coastal waters after a mysterious one-year absence — just in time to be counted.
The Maryland Coastal Bays Program and the National Aquarium in Baltimore are asking people to report sightings in an effort to learn more about the seals’ behavior near the southernmost part of their range.
To that end, people should enjoy the experience but keep a safe distance and don’t harass them, said Sandi Smith, development and marketing coordinator for Maryland Coastal Bays.
“Everybody wants to bond with an appealing, fuzzy face,” she said. “But the seals are hauling out because they’re tired. They’ve come a long way and they just want to rest.”
The two organizations are using a $34,000 federal grant to create a sightings website and spread the word about how people and seals can co-exist comfortably. Since the site went live a few weeks ago, trackers have reported three sightings.
A harbor seal was spotted resting on the beach and playing in the surf at Assateague Island. Another seal was seen on the beach at Ocean City’s 23rd Street. And the third was recently seen frolicking in the bay between Wicomico and Sixth streets.
About 20 to 25 seal sightings are reported in Maryland coastal waters from December to May each year, said Jen Dittmar, stranding coordinator with the National Aquarium.
But their habits may be changing. Eight seals were found together on Drum Island two years ago — the first time they’ve been seen in a group in this area, Dittmar said.
Oddly, none were seen last winter. Some trackers have speculated that milder temperatures curtailed the seals’ journey southward, but the cause remains unknown.
Dittmar said she is curious to see whether their group behavior was a fluke or the start of a trend.
The two mostly commonly seen types in Maryland are gray and harbor seals, experts say.
Gray seals may be up to 880 pounds and 10 feet long; they are widely distributed along coastal waters from the mid-Atlantic to the Baltic Sea. Harbor seals may reach up to 245 pounds and 6 feet long, and can be found from the Carolinas to the Canadian Arctic and from Mexico to Alaska.
Many who have glimpsed a seal locally describe it as a welcome surprise.
Todd Chandler, an Ocean City real estate agent, found himself doing a double-take during a recent walk on Assateague with his dog. A seal was calmly lying on the beach; he snagged his iPhone and began taking pictures.
“It’s the neat thing about being here this time of year,” he said. “They’re just neat creatures.”
Smith cautioned that the seals are tired and usually in no mood to be ogled. She advised keeping at least 50 yards away and limiting viewing to 30 minutes.
To report a sighting, call 1-800-628-9944 or visit www.mdcoastalbays.org/report-a-seal.