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Elephant seal seeks quiet beach to molt

Seal Sitter’s hotline received a call yesterday afternoon with a report of an elephant seal on a private stretch of beach in West Seattle. Mary, the reporting party and waterfront resident, was confident that it was indeed an ellie (as they are affectionately called) since there had been one on her beach for an extended time last year. Sure enough, our volunteer found the huge seal nestled among the logs and taped off a perimeter to warn residents and beach walkers of her presence. Photos and video were sent to WDFW’s marine mammal biologist who confirmed that the seal was molting and would most likely be on the beach for at least a week.

Molting is a process of shedding the skin and fur. Seals shed their fur each year and harbor seals molt shortly after the breeding season over a period of about 4 weeks. For the elephant seal, however, molting is a grueling endeavor. Every year they shed not only their fur, but also the first layer of skin in a matter of weeks. It is such an abrupt process, taking place in a very short length of time, that it is called a catastrophic molt. As you can imagine, it is terribly uncomfortable and painful. During that time, the seal typically remains on the beach and does not return to the water to forage until the molt is complete. The animal is generally pretty miserable and it is a disturbing sight to the public, but be assured that this seal is quite healthy and will soon have a beautiful, new svelte coat. This elephant seal has been nicknamed Abby. We are pretty sure the seal is female but have not completely verified that. If Abby turns out to be male, we will have to change the name to Fat Albert because this is one very, very rotund seal! Certainly there are no worries that this seal won’t have enough blubber to last through the fast. It is conceivable that this is the same female who chose this quiet spot to molt last year.

Unfortunately, like all too many West Seattle beaches, illegally off leash dogs are a real concern. Volunteers and residents intercepted a number of dogs who were headed straight for Abby. Unlike small seal pups who usually end up injured in this scenario, this elephant seal is several hundred pounds and not feeling well. It could easily end up that both the dog and Abby could get severely injured as she tries to defend herself. We want to ensure that Abby is able to rest as discreetly and safely as possible during her trying time. It is part of Seal Sitters’ role in the marine mammal stranding network to help keep both the animals and the public safe at all times.
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