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Street banners a reminder to "Share the Shore" with seal pups

Any day now, or so we hope, tiny harbor seal pups will be visiting our shores to rest and warm up. Each September and October across South and Central Puget Sound, pups venture out on their own after being weaned in area rookeries, where hundreds of seals gather and there is safety in numbers.

No longer protected by their moms and naive to the dangers around them, the pups are vulnerable on urban beaches. Many will have never seen a human or offleash dog.

Likewise, many people have never encountered a seal pup. They don’t understand that it’s normal for one to be alone on the beach. All seals need to rest 50% of the day out of the water, whether on land, docks or offshore platforms. While it is human nature to want to “help” a pup return to the water or feed him/her, that is truly the last thing that should be done. All marine mammals are protected from harassment by Federal and Washington State law (read the most common mistakes - and consequences here).

Rest is critical to seal pups’ survival, with a 50% mortality the first year. More often than not, weaners struggle, losing the thick layer of blubber they gain by nursing on rich milk - blubber which provides warmth and energy. Now, they are dependent entirely on their own limited hunting skills. Along with dwindling numbers of small forage fish, such as herring, this can be a daunting task for a pup.

On Thursday morning, Dan Campau and James Lohman of Seattle Parks installed Seal Sitters’ “Share the Shore” street banners, which serve to remind residents and visitors that we are in the midst of pupping season in our area. The 10 graphic banners are hung annually from street poles along the popular stretch of sandy Alki Beach - busy with hundreds of people enjoying volleyball, frisbee, kayaking, biking and picnicking; the same Alki Beach where tired seal pups haul out to try to find a quiet place to rest. It is a challenge for SSMMSN volunteers to keep them safe from harassment and harm.

The banner artwork is by New York illustrator Nancy Stahl, based on an image by photographer (and SSMMSN Lead Investigator) Robin Lindsey. Seal Sitters initiated the project as part of a Department of Neighborhoods grant for educational outreach in the West Seattle community in 2011.

Seal Sitters MMSN experienced an unusually quiet July and August this year. Each season seems to have its oddities and September and October are by far our busiest months. SSMMSN averages 200 responses to marine mammals annually in West Seattle (70% during seal pupping season). A whopping 90% of those responses are to harbor seal pups, who come ashore all along West Seattle’s miles of largely public accessible shoreline.

If you see a pup on shore, please stay far back, leash and remove dogs from the beach (dogs are not allowed under any circumstances on Seattle beaches), and call Seal Sitters’ hotline @ 206-905-SEAL (7325).

Summer session Seal Sitters new volunteer training scheduled

Seal Sitters MMSN holds several special trainings a year for those wanting to protect marine mammals along the shoreline of West Seattle and the Duwamish River. We are a very active network and have volunteers who travel from around the area to participate. However, if you live out of the West Seattle area and would like to find a stranding network closer to where you live, click here.

Unlike most marine mammal stranding networks, we encourage children to participate in Seal Sitters - supervised at all times, of course, by a parent or guardian. We are so proud of our amazing and dedicated volunteers who are on duty rain or shine - we hope you will join us!

A multi-media presentation will illustrate our educational work in the community and the unique challenges of protecting seals and other marine mammals in an urban environment. Included in the training is an overview of NOAA's West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network and biology and behavior of seals and other pinnipeds (due to short time frame, supplementary sessions may be held to include more marine mammals of Puget Sound).

*Due to time constraints on volunteers, this will be our final training before and during pupping season.

10am - 12:30pm (doors open for registration at 9:30am)
*please arrive early to receive and fill out paperwork

ALKI UCC (*there is no church affiliation with Seal Sitters MMSN)
front meeting room
6115 SW Hinds St
Seattle, WA 98116 (
map it here)

RSVP required to attend. (*please include full name - including name/ages of attending children - and neighborhood)

*PARENTS PLEASE NOTE: all children in attendance must be able to sit quietly through an approximate 2 hour training session with a short break.

For additional questions and info or to be placed on a contact list for future training opportunities, please email us. Seal Sitters MMSN does not usually hold trainings during the height of our pupping season August - October due to time constraints on volunteers responding to marine mammals. If you would like to help protect marine mammals through mid-Fall, please plan to attend this session.

Dreary weather can't dampen Seal Sitters' mission

Despite cool and breezy weather (including some much-needed rain yesterday afternoon), the Alki Art Fair was a resounding success for Seal Sitters, whose volunteers spoke with 691 people during the 2-day event on the busy beach promenade.

As ferries passed back and forth before a misty Olympic Mountain backdrop, passersby learned about the varied work of the marine mammal stranding networks and were cautioned that we are now in the throes of harbor seal pupping season.

Along with a fun seal coloring project, created by talented Seal Sitters’ artist Lynn Shimamoto (photo of future volunteers Sadie and Stella), a table loaded with outreach materials and seal pelts enticed passersby to linger, learn and chat with volunteers. Countless people stopped to poke their heads through our sea life “photo op” board, snapping photos on their smart phones.

Thanks to all of our volunteers who did such a great job representing Seal Sitters and NOAA’s West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Special thanks to Seal Sitters’ event gurus David and Eilene Hutchinson who put in massive hours, not only lining up volunteers for our table and to help out other exhibitors, but also for being on site the entire weekend.

For the third year in a row, Spud Fish and Chips, a West Seattle restaurant icon located at 2666 Alki Ave SW on Alki Beach, donated $1 to Seal Sitters MMSN for every cup of chowder purchased during the fair. The donations will be used for our marine mammal stranding and educational outreach activities. Huge thanks to the generosity of Spud Fish and Chips for this fund-raising opportunity - and to those of you who enjoyed a cup of delicious chowder and helped protect marine life.

Seal pup Little Dipper continues to improve in rehab

Seal pup Little Dipper, rescued almost a month ago after being abandoned by his mom at Lincoln Park, continues to do well at PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood. Abandonment was most likely due to the presence of humans and dogs at the very busy urban park.

The pup is reluctantly eating whole fish at the facility. Little Dipper will be released back to the wild, once he has bulked up with some substantial fat reserves and the rehabbers are confident he can forage on his own, catching small fish and squid in the vast waters of Puget Sound.

Harbor seal pupping season is underway in South Puget Sound. If you see a seal on the beach, please stay back. Keep people and dogs well away and call the marine mammal stranding network for your area. In West Seattle, call Seal Sitters’ hotline at 206-905-SEAL (7325). For a map listing all of the stranding networks in Washington, click here.

Seal Sitters share the love at Summer Fest

Seal Sitters, handing out seal stickers and marine debris coloring sheets to passing children, manned a table at the very popular West Seattle Summer Fest last weekend. Even with dreary and relatively chilly weather on Friday, volunteers sporting “Share the Shore” t-shirts were out in force. They educated approximately 188 people about harbor seal pupping season (now underway in our area), as well as the work of the marine mammal stranding network.

On a much hotter Sunday afternoon, an ice chest filled with cold bottles of water came in handy - not only for volunteers, but also for panting 4-legged friends, who eagerly slurped from the dog watering dish. Further down the street at the GreenLife Stage, Donna Sandstrom of The Whale Trail gave a talk. Orca Network also had a booth. Marine mammals were very well represented.

Thanks so much to the organizers of Summer Fest who provided tables for non-profits to do outreach at the event! Seal Sitters volunteers shared information with a total of 409 folks of all ages over the 2 days (7 hours) we had a presence. Thanks to our dedicated vols for spreading the blubber love.

Pint-sized scientist, age 7, has big warning about Salish Sea oil spill

7-year old Alek, inspired by scientists and explorers like Sylvia Earle, has always been fascinated by the ocean. Learning about oil spill catastrophes, such as the Exxon Valdez in Alaska and the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, spurned him into environmental action. Last year, he dove into research about the devastating effects of oil spills on marine ecosystems and the environment. The end result was a science project on the effectiveness of booms in containment of spilled oil.

This year, Alek upped his game in a project requiring more than 400 hours. He just released two videos (one 53 minutes long, the other a condensed 17 minute overview) analyzing the events and consequences of a simulated major oil spill in the Salish Sea.

Visit citizen scientist Alek’s website to learn more about his study, view both videos and sign his petition. Kudos to Alek for this significant achievement and to the numerous consulting agencies who helped him with his science, including SeaDoc Society chief scientist Joe Gaydos. The Salish Sea is lucky to have young Alek as a passionate environmental steward.

Seal Sitters MMSN is very proud that we, too, have some pretty awesome kids who participate in our stranding activities on the beach, learning about marine mammals and the marine environment. Empowered with this knowledge about our fragile Salish Sea ecosystem, these young wildlife advocates promote stewardship in their schools and far beyond.

Fourth of July no picnic for wildlife - stay away from seal haulouts

The Fourth of July and summer boating season is definitely no picnic for wildlife, particularly newborn seal pups. Fireworks and beach parties cause pups to be abandoned every year. This is a reminder that when you venture out to the beach, whether by trail or boat, please respect animals’ space and need for quiet.

Harbor seal haulouts are full of pregnant females and newborn pups in South Puget Sound and pups can be found all along the Washington coastline and inland waterways. Harbor seals also use jetties, breakwaters and log booms for haulouts.

Please stay a minimum of 100 yards away from resting seals. Like all marine mammals, they are protected from harassment by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Washington State law RCW 77.15.130 (a criminal misdemeanor, mandatory court appearance, punishable with up to 90 days in jail and up to $1000 fine).

Pups pay a terrible price for human disturbance. The pup shown above was found in 2012, starving on Cutts Island, along with two other emaciated pups and several dead ones. All had been abandoned by their mothers because boaters disrupted the seal colony on this small island near Gig Harbor. A day of boating fun for people can be a death sentence for seal pups. During boating season, thousands of boats can be moored offshore at Cutts disrupting this historic harbor seal haulout (called a “rookery” during pupping season). This past weekend, Boy Scout Troop 1519 along with WDFW staff posted warning signs on Cutts and surrounding beaches that seals are protected by Federal law and to stay back.

If you find a spot for your picnic on a beach near a harbor seal, please move your picnic to another beach. There are reports of people with blankets and coolers surrounding a lone seal pup - finally calling the stranding network wondering why the mother did not return. A harbor seal mom, shy and wary of humans, will abandon her pup if people and dogs are around! Use common sense and help protect wildlife from harassment.

If you are boating or kayaking, please stay far away from resting harbor seals. In 2010, we documented a speeding boat intentionally flushing seals from a protected island rookery with a sign posted “closed harbor”. In the photo below, you can see the boat scaring hundreds of seals from the beach, including pregnant females and many newborn pups. A female was giving birth right at that very moment and, terrified, she left her newborn pup, still in a bloody birth sac, alone on the deserted beach. The mom had no time to memorize the scent or call of her pup, which often leads to abandonment. Thankfully, a full 20 minutes after the boat left with the people onboard laughing, the mom returned to nurse her pup. More often than not, that pup would have been abandoned and slowly starved to death.

It is not a laughing matter to harass seals. It is a matter of life and death for seal pups. This incident was investigated by NOAA’s Office for Law Enforcement. Harassment is not just poking with sticks (yes, we have witnessed that) or scaring an animal back into the water - any change in an animal’s behavior caused by your presence is considered a “take” by law. This Federal law also prohibits touching, moving and feeding seal pups.

Many state parks on islands in the San Juans, Central and South Puget Sound have harbor seal rookeries. Do not approach animals by boat or by land. Please, be respectful and move your party elsewhere. If you see a violation, please call NOAA Office for Law Enforcement: 1-800-853-1964 and your local stranding network.

Boat launches and docks can have newborn or weaned pups sleeping on them or nearby, often in danger from propeller strikes or being run over by boat trailers. In some coastal areas, people are allowed to drive vehicles on the beach itself. On July 4th weekend in 2011, a pup was run over and killed on the beach at Ocean Shores - other animals, sick or weak and unable to move quickly, have been run over on beaches at Westport (California sea lion pup), Long Beach Peninsula (California sea lion), and Twin Harbors (adult harbor seal) at different times of the year. Please immediately report any pup (or adult) that is at a dangerous location or being harassed to your local stranding network.

Please be aware of your surroundings and give animals a break this holiday. Respect that harbor seals need to rest and nurse. Celebrate responsibly and you just might save the life of a seal pup. Fireworks are a moment’s thrill that can have heartbreaking consequences for wildlife.

West Seattle seal pup doing swimmingly in rehab

Little Dipper, the newborn seal pup rescued Friday from a Lincoln Park beach, is doing pretty well according to PAWS Wildlife Center rehabilitation manager Emily Meredith. The pup’s wounds, including two punctures on the head from an undetermined animal, are healing thanks to antibiotics. Little Dipper is being tube-fed “seal formula.” While formula is never as good as a mom’s milk with her natural antibodies, he has gained almost a full kilogram in weight under PAWS’ care. Little Dipper has been enjoying his big outdoor pool.

The abandoned pup was protected by Seal Sitters volunteers on Thursday and Friday. See photos and read about Little Dipper’s treatment at PAWS on their blog here. We can’t thank PAWS dedicated staff enough for giving this pup a second chance.

Abandoned newborn seal pup rescued from Lincoln Park

A newborn, full-term harbor seal pup, abandoned at busy Lincoln Park, was taken by Seal Sitters’ NOAA-authorized responders to PAWS Wildlife Center for a health assessment late Friday afternoon.

The pup was first sighted on the beach by Colman Pool early Thursday morning, but was not immediately reported to Seal Sitters. When we received a report hours later, First Responder Lynn arrived at the Park and saw four off-leash dogs on the beach. According to the woman who called the hotline, the pup was scared into the water by approaching people. The pup was swimming around in the water, desperately trying to crawl up onto a cement pillar just offshore. Thankfully, he returned to the beach shortly thereafter and Lynn established a large tape perimeter. She knew that any pup on the beach in South Puget Sound in late June/early July is a newborn and would still be nursing.

Under an unrelentingly hot sun, the very tiny pup was watched over by volunteers in shifts. Due to close proximity to the sidewalk and public pool, visitors to the park were asked to take a short detour around the pool building. This was all in hopes that mom might return to feed the thin pup. Except for a few peeved people, everyone was extremely cooperative, especially when they realized the urgent situation for the pup. However, with a park full of activity, including people along the water’s edge north and south of the perimeter, and the excited voices of children swimming in the nearby public pool, the scenario of mom’s return was extremely dubious. The pup entered the water several times during the day, probably taking a dip to cool down, sometimes calling plaintively to be fed. At 10pm when darkness fell, there was still no sign of mom swimming anywhere nearby.

On Friday morning, the pup was discovered onshore just south of the point where the pool is located. First Responders David and Eilene set a generous perimeter and volunteers were lined up for yet another terribly hot and busy day at the Park. The pup, nicknamed Little Dipper, was markedly thinner and much less alert than the previous day. Health assessment photos taken with a long telephoto definitively showed the the pup’s jutting hip and shoulder bones. It was now clear that the pup was emaciated and not being fed.

Not every struggling seal pup is a candidate for the very few spaces available at our Northwest rehabilitation facilities. Each pup is evaluated on a case by case basis for candidacy since the harbor seal population is considered to be at healthy levels and there is a 50% mortality in the wild for pups in their first year. It is NOAA’s policy that spaces are generally reserved for cases of human interaction, including pups with serious injuries. A seal pup that ends up in rehab will usually be at a facility for two or more months.Read here about NOAA’s rehabilitation policy for full-term pups.

Due to the highly trafficked public location, dangers from off-leash dogs and human interaction, brutal heatwave and large crowds (and many children) expected for the next several days, Lead Investigator Robin made the decision to rescue the deemed abandoned pup from the beach and take him for evaluation by PAWS’ veterinarians.

Since the pup was just feet from the incoming tide, a salmon landing net on the end of a pole was gently placed over the pup to prevent his escape. Much to our surprise (and not shown in photos), Little Dipper had a fleshy umbilical cord dangling from his sunken belly and estimated to be 3-5 days old.

Interestingly, on Wednesday evening Seal Sitters’ hotline received a report that a pup with umbilicus attached had followed a man in his watercraft off Emma Schmitz Park. We are assuming this was Little Dipper.

On arrival at PAWS, the male pup weighed a mere 8.4 kg and veterinarians confirmed the pup was emaciated and had not eaten in days. Little Dipper had two puncture/bite wounds about 1/2” deep on the head and a laceration near the tail. The wounds do not appear to be serious and are being treated with antibiotics.

On Saturday, PAWS staff reported that Little Dipper was much more vibrant after being hydrated and stabilized. The prognosis is now good for his survival, assuming there are no underlying health issues.

Thanks to all of the many volunteers - including a number of our brand-new volunteers from the June training - who helped out over the two days Little Dipper was on shore. Dealing with large crowds of people can be a challenge and everyone performed fantastically. Seal Sitters would also like to give special thanks to Seattle Parks’ staff Carol, Charles, Dino and Kyle who provided assistance on Friday. We so value our great relationship with the Southwest Division.

Stay posted for health updates on Little Dipper from the dedicated rehab folks at PAWS!

PUPDATE (7/3/15)
Little Dipper is doing pretty well according to PAWS Wildlife Center rehabilitation manager Emily Meredith. The pup’s wounds, including the two punctures on the head from an undetermined animal, are healing thanks to antibiotics. Little Dipper is being tube-fed “seal formula.” While formula is never as good as a mom’s milk with her natural antibodies, he has gained almost a full kilogram in weight under PAWS’ care. Little Dipper has been enjoying his big outdoor pool.

See recent photos and read about Little Dipper’s treatment at PAWS on their blog here. We can’t thank PAWS dedicated staff enough for giving this pup a second chance.

Burien fin whale skeleton gets new life for public display

Shortly after sunrise on Saturday morning, the 27th, the steady clank of shovels echoed across the flat waters of Puget Sound. Boy Scout Troop 1519 from Sunnyslope (near Port Orchard) was hard at work helping to exhume the skull of a fin whale, buried on a protected beach.

The endangered whale was killed by a ship strike, likely brought into Puget Sound on the bow of a large ship, and floated ashore at Burien’s Seahurst Park in April of 2013. Seal Sitters volunteers assisted in crowd control as hordes of people flocked to the park to view the second largest species of whale - and animal - in the world. Following a limited necropsy by Cascadia Research Collective and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife/Marine Mammal Investigations Unit, the carcass was towed to a South Puget Sound island for further examination and left to naturally decompose on the remote beach.

Next began the search to find an institution interested in the bones for an educational display. Foss Waterway Seaport, located on Tacoma’s waterfront, jumped at the opportunity to feature the huge skull and other bones at their museum. Although the skeleton was incomplete because the whale was literally cut in half by the ship, Seaport Director of Education, Jan Adams, believed the skull would prove a wonderful learning experience.

Brainstorming with her 14-year old son Gregg about possible Eagle Scout service projects, WDFW’s marine mammal biologist Dyanna Lambourn asked if he might want to lead his troop in unearthing the whale. Gregg presented the idea to his fellow Scouts who enthusiastically agreed to help with the unique endeavor. After substantial planning, the complex service project was approved by leadership in the Chief Seattle Council. In 2013 alone, members of the Boy Scouts of America, working toward achieving the rank of Eagle Scout, donated 9.3 million service hours on projects that benefited communities across the country.

On Friday night, 6 Scout team leaders (along with the Scoutmaster and adult leaders) camped out in the woods of the island, preparing for the big dig. In the early morning light, the remaining 5 Scouts from the troop (ages 11-14) were shuttled across the water from Fox Island by WDFW in a pair of sturdy Boston Whaler research boats. A handful of volunteers from Highline College’s Marine and Science Technology (MaST) later arrived with Foss Waterway staff on a refurbished U.S. Coast Guard research vessel which chugged all the way from Tacoma. Eggs were scrambled for breakfast burritos and coolers full of water, Gatorade and food for the day were lined up for the crew.

Then, the immensely physical work began. With temperatures soaring into the mid-80’s, everyone pitched in to carefully excavate the bones, carrying away bucket after heavy bucket of sand and pebbles. After several hours of virtually non-stop digging, the approximately 17 ft long skull was revealed.

The team tugged and pushed the estimated 1,000 lb skull and its lower two jaws, each weighing more than 500 lbs, to the water’s edge. A barge from Nisqually Marine Services, requiring only an 18” depth of water and equipped with a crane, raised the mammoth bones up onto the deck for transport to the museum where they will be scrubbed clean, dried and prepped for exhibition.

Congratulations to the boys of Scout Troop 1519 for this impressive achievement and to Eagle Scout candidate and project leader Gregg (at left), who is also working his way toward a rare Hornaday Award for significant contributions to conservation.

Once on display at Foss Seaport Waterway’s museum (hopefully by late July), the bone artifacts will educate scores of visitors about majestic fin whales - and the increasing dangers of ship strikes to the many species of whales who migrate along our Pacific Coast.

Pupping season gets off to an early - and rough - start

For the second June in a row, Seal Sitters has responded to a premature pup on West Seattle’s shore. At 5pm on Wednesday, the hotline fielded a call about a tiny pup resting near the Alki Lighthouse on Coast Guard property.

First Responder Lynn was on the scene within minutes. Through her binoculars, she could see that the pup was covered almost entirely in fluffy, white lanugo fur, normally shed inside the womb as a pup matures to full-term before birth. A fleshy umbilicus was visible. Lynn’s heart sank. She knew it was going to be a tremendous challenge to keep the beach quiet in hopes mom might return to nurse him.

It was urgent to keep the public - and dogs - as far away as possible and volunteers out of sight as well. Lynn immediately called the volunteer scheduler for the day. Denise checked the online calendar and began ringing volunteers who had entered time for the day. Wearing blue i.d. vests, they were stationed alongside barricades strung with yellow tape, far down the beach south and north of the lighthouse. Waterfront homeowners were alerted that a newborn pup was on the beach and asked to please keep a low profile - they were happy do anything to help. It was truly a life and death situation for the pup.

Neighbors graciously allowed First Responders Lynn and David access through their property so we could periodically get quick health assessment photos, crouched on their deck (Seal Sitters owes them tremendous thanks). Photos revealed that the pup was 80% lanugo (about 2 weeks premature) and, based on the condition of the umbilicus, was possibly a few days old. The pup was nicknamed Wynken, from the beloved 1889 children’s poem, Wynken, Blynken and Nod.

As darkness fell, volunteers left their posts for home, but returned to duty again early Thursday morning. Wynken was still on shore and the low tide would enable public access around the point. First Responders noticed the pup seemed thinner, but would occasionally stretch and stir. Volunteers tried to keep up hope that mom was still in the area. Wynken returned briefly to the water at high tide and then was back on shore. Once again, until almost 10 pm, volunteers patiently stood vigil at far ends of the beach for a pup they had yet to see.

Early Friday morning, Wynken was discovered sleeping in the rocks on the opposite side of the lighthouse and was markedly thinner (photo shown). Photos were reviewed by WDFW’s marine mammal biologist. Based on body weight it was obvious that there was no attending female. Most likely, Wynken had not eaten since he was born 3-5 days earlier.

The difficult decision was made to remove the pup from the beach for humane euthanasia before he suffered. Lanugo seal pups are not candidates for rehabilitation in the Northwest, based on their health challenges and high mortality in nature. Therefore, if abandoned, euthanasia is the only option. Since Seal Sitters MMSN has a binding contract with NOAA giving us the authority to respond to marine mammals, we are obligated to abide by NOAA policy and guidelines, as are area rehabilitation facilities.
Read here for NOAA policy on lanugo pups.

On Friday afternoon, First Responder Robin drove Wynken to be sedated and then euthanized.

After the ensuing necropsy, we can now say for sure that mom was never present for this pup, since the intestines and stomach were entirely empty. Why the pup was abandoned is purely speculation. 90% of all lanugo pups in the wild are abandoned within a week and die. Pups are born prematurely for a reason (including disease, genital birth defect or high contaminant loads). The seal mom often innately knows the pup, whose lungs and muscles have not fully developed, is not viable to survive. She must then think of her own survival and not waste precious resources. Certainly, there could have been human interference and she was scared off. Or, she could have died giving birth. The answer to this question, we will never know.

What we do know, however, is that volunteers, First Responders and neighbors did their best to give Wynken a chance for mom to return if she was in the area.

Seal Sitters cannot thank our volunteers enough for looking after this very special pup. The work we do can be so difficult at times, since even full-term pups have a 50% mortality their first year. Seal Sitters is committed to giving these beautiful little beings peace on our beaches - so they have their best shot at survival on our watch.

This was a very sad day.

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe —
Sailed on a river of crystal light,
Into a sea of dew.
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