Hey, People, Leave Those Seal Pups Alone

2 min
Paws, a female Pacific harbor seal pup, was rescued near Santa Maria by trained responders from the Marine Mammal Center’s Morro Bay triage facility last spring. Harbor seal mothers often leave their pups ashore while they're feeding at sea, leading many members of the public to mistakenly believe they’ve been abandoned. Paws was brought to the center’s Sausalito hospital for rehabilitation ,where staff veterinarians confirmed that she was healthy and had been taken off the beach prematurely. Luckily, Paws got a second chance at life. (Sarah van Schagen/The Marine Mammal Center)

Crowds of pinnipeds are returning to their rookeries on California beaches this time of year to give birth to their pups. The most common of those pinnipeds right now -- from San Luis Obispo northward -- are Pacific harbor seals and northern elephant seals.

Their rookeries aren't exactly private. There are even boardwalks stretching above some of them, where humans can actually witness seal mothers giving birth and nursing their newborn pups.

But that exciting proximity can come at a potentially deadly cost.

Harbor seal pups live on the beach for a couple of months while their mothers feed on fish in the ocean. From the water, mothers keep a watchful eye on their pups -- and if a pup's mom sees a human or a human's canine companion getting too close, she will abandon her pup.

An elephant seal pup rests on a Central California beach prior to rescue by trained responders from The Marine Mammal Center. From mid-February through the end of June, the Center's rescue and rehabilitation work focuses on orphaned elephant seal and harbor seal pups.
An elephant seal pup rests on a Central California beach prior to rescue by trained responders from the Marine Mammal Center. From mid-February through the end of June, the center's rescue and rehabilitation work focuses on orphaned elephant seal and harbor seal pups. (The Marine Mammal Center)

Elephant seal pups are born unable to swim, and have to spend lots of time learning in shallow waters.

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They may not learn properly if this crucial growth process is disrupted by beachgoers -- and that can spell doom for the pups and, in turn, the health of the entire herd.

Dr. Abby McClain, a veterinarian at the Northern California Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, says pupping season typically brings an influx of starving newborn pups.

Horchata, a male northern elephant seal pup, was rescued this March near Half Moon Bay. Beachgoers with dogs crowded the animal and began pouring water on it, which is never recommended. Though the beachgoers were well-meaning, Horchata had to be rescued by trained responders and brought to The Marine Mammal Center for rehabilitation. Veterinarians diagnosed Horchata with malnutrition and maternal separation. Horchata is steadily gaining weight and beginning to learn how to eat fish.
Horchata, a male northern elephant seal pup, was rescued this March near Half Moon Bay. Beachgoers with dogs crowded the animal and began pouring water on it, which is never recommended. Though the beachgoers were well-meaning, Horchata had to be rescued by trained responders and brought to the Marine Mammal Center for rehabilitation. Veterinarians diagnosed Horchata with malnutrition and maternal separation. Horchata is steadily gaining weight and beginning to learn how to eat fish. (Bill Hunnewell/The Marine Mammal Center)

The Marine Mammal Center currently has more than 80 young patients.

McClain says many of them either became separated from their mothers during storms and washed ashore, or they were likely abandoned.

Pebbles, a female Pacific harbor seal pup, was rescued near Monterey by trained responders from The Marine Mammal Center last spring. Pebbles was one of 11 harbor seal pups rescued due to human interaction that resulted in maternal separation.
Pebbles, a female Pacific harbor seal pup, was rescued near Monterey by trained responders from the Marine Mammal Center last spring. Pebbles was one of 11 harbor seal pups rescued due to human interaction that resulted in maternal separation. (The Marine Mammal Center)

The number of the center's patients isn't unusually high for this time of year. What's more concerning to McClain is the high number of negative human and dog interactions over the past two years.

She says there were more than 100 such known encounters, way up from previous years. It puts the future of the statewide seal population at risk, she says.

McClain says people should enjoy their time observing seals but always keep their distance.

"If these negative encounters continue to increase, we are likely not going to be able to enjoy this for much longer.”

Volunteers from The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito prepare to rescue a young California sea lion.
Volunteers from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito prepare to rescue a young California sea lion. (Clive Beavis/The Marine Mammal Center)

If you encounter a seal pup of any kind, McClain says to put a healthy distance between yourself and the pup.

As a guide, she says if you are taking photographs and do not have to use your camera zoom, you're too close.

So, that selfie with a seal -- no matter how tempting -- could cost the seal pup its life.


Photos of seals taken from a safe distance are appreciated by the Marine Mammal Center. They use them to keep track of strandings and to assess a potential rescue.

To report a marine mammal in California that appears ill, abandoned or in danger, call the 24-hour hotline: 415-289-7325.

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