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Responders challenged to keep seals safe on city beaches

This morning, Seal Sitters (SSMMSN) First Responder Lynn mused, “I wonder where Wonder the seal will turn up next?” For the past week, the yearling who is struggling with health issues had come ashore to rest each day onshore along West Seattle’s Beach Drive. On Sunday, Wonder ran Lynn ragged, first appearing on a quiet private beach, then a more active public beach, and last - but not least - in the heart of crowded, noisy Alki Beach.

SSMMSN Hotline Operator Larry called shortly after 9am. Waterfront homeowner Jarrett had reported a pup and gave Lynn access to his private property. Wonder was sleeping above high tide line, practically at the patio steps. Volunteer Kate joined Lynn, keeping a low profile since any casual beachgoers would not notice the pup. When a neighbor’s dog startled Wonder awake, he/she made a beeline for the water about 70’ away, but stopped at the edge. Brand new Seal Sitter (and Brazilian biologist) Jaqueline arrived and helped put up signs on either side and watched for people walking the beach. At noon, just as Karen and Kelsey came for their shift, the seal abruptly went in and swam east.

Before Lynn could get too comfy at home, another call came in around 1pm - a “pup” at the eastern end of Alki Beach near 53rd. Lynn lugged stakes and a signboard which she tossed over the seawall. Three eager people - reporting party Al, Melanie and Ray - grabbed the materials and very quickly put up a perimeter. Then they settled back onto the beach and watched Wonder snooze at the water’s edge.

A group on the sand was speaking Spanish and the woman exclaimed, “Una foca bebe!” But soon after, Wonder woke and decided to return to the cold waters of Puget Sound. Ray and Al took down the perimeter and Lynn wound her way back home.

Around 4pm, the hotline was hit with a barrage of calls that Wonder was back. This time, the yearling emerged from the vivid blue water onto the sand and into the very middle of a throng of sunbathers, picnickers and paddlers near 58th, across from restaurants and bicycle rentals. Unable to park and unload stranding materials due to immense crowds and traffic, Lynn had to hike down Admiral hill. When she arrived, several people were trying valiantly to keep others back, but the young seal was surrounded by a crowd standing only 20 feet away. Walking around Wonder, Lynn dropped stakes on the ground at intervals. A fantastic woman from Bremerton named Robin stepped up to volunteer, putting up the stakes where she found them and helped stretch the tape. Between the two of them, a small, but effective barrier went up as sympathetic beachgoers gathered up their towels and children and vacated the space (photo above). Wonder seemed oblivious to the action, even as an errant football landed inside the small buffer zone. The seal’s lack of concern about bystanders is worrisome and likely due to health issues.

First Responders David and Eilene arrived to help. Volunteer Scheduler Jonel began making calls and, despite the impossible parking situation, Jen and Madison, Rebecca and Lina, Karen and Victoria all appeared to help with crowd contol. And Jonel herself came, multi-tasking and using her cell phone to contact volunteers while straightening a wave-threatened stake. Youngsters Lina and Madison were terrific - handing out stickers, helping with the perimeter and talking to visitors.

As the water rose, Wonder actually moved higher up on the beach, straight towards the crowd. The yellow tape was moved incrementally whenever space allowed. Finally, Wonder decided to go back in at 8:20pm and Seal Sitters gladly packed up and left. Many, many thanks to everyone involved on a very challenging day. Special thanks to Lynn who cheerfully perservered before crashing for the evening. An awesome job by all!

Stewards clean up the trashy beach and keep wildlife safe

On Saturday morning, 68 passionate environmental stewards (15 of those under the age of 18) donated a total of 115 volunteer hours at Alki Beach, removing dangerous trash from the popular beach, surrounding sidewalks and streets to help keep wildlife safe.

Seal Sitters annual “Sentinels of the Sound” Beach Cleanup was co-sponsored this year with sister network Sno-King Marine Mammal Response. Shown in photo is Sno-King’s Rachel Mayer, Seal Sitters’ Eilene Hutchinson and Larry Carpenter. Rachel and SSMMSN co-investigator Lynn Shimamoto talked to the crowd about types and dangers of debris and beach etiquette for walking among invertebrate beach inhabitants. Among the many enthusiastic participants were Seattle Girl Scout Troup #41404 and Brownies (2nd and 3rd graders), who recently voted to donate a portion of their cookie sales to Seal Sitters - humongous flipper hugs to the thoughtful girls.

For Seal Sitters, derelict fishing gear is an up close and personal issue. Once again, the cleanup was in honor of newborn seal pup Sandy, who was rescued by Seal Sitters in August of 2011 and rehabilitated at PAWS Wildlife Center. After months of rehab, she was finally released back to the wild, but found dead 66 days later, entangled in derelict fishing line off the Edmonds pier.

The event was also in honor of the juvenile gray whale that died on Arroyos beach in April of 2010. The necropsy revealed only human trash in the whale’s stomach.

Did you know that an estimated 80% of marine debris originates from land? Or that 360 billion cigarette butts are discarded in the U.S. alone each year - all of them leaching toxic chemicals into the soil and waterways? Derelict fishing gear and plastics injure and kill many thousands of marine mammals and seabirds annually.

Learn more in-depth about the dangers of marine debris by visiting Seal Sitters’ website.

Thanks to everyone who gave wildlife a helping hand on Saturday!

Wave of harbor seal yearlings keeps volunteers on alert

Seal Sitters volunteers have been trying to go with the flow for over a week now in West Seattle, as two (possibly three) harbor seal yearlings have been swimming ashore at various times each day along westside beaches. Early Saturday, the 17th, First Responder Robin followed up on a report of a seal near the Alki Lighthouse. She found a dark-coated yearling, sound asleep high up on the rocky beach and taped off the area to prevent access.

Brand new Seal Sitters volunteers Kelsey and Allison, virtually oozing enthusiasm, came down to help protect their first seal, who was nicknamed Wonder (above). A steady stream of volunteers in shifts looked over Wonder until the seal, born last year, returned to the water around 3:30.

The following day, Wonder was back onshore, nestled deep into the pile of large boulders beneath the Coast Guard lighthouse. After Wonder left the shore, a few hours later, two seals were spotted swimming just offshore by First Responders David and Eilene. To their surprise, a second yearling much lighter in color, crawled onto the pebbled beach and into the craggy rocks, a little closer to the point.

Volunteers were stationed on both sides of rocky Alki Point, warning beach walkers that a seal with compromised health was trying to rest. Periodically, volunteers had to climb up onto the rocks to see if the yearling was still sleeping there since he was not visible from down the beach. Dubbed Mystery (at right), he/she stayed until dark, finally leaving the beach at almost 9pm. Volunteers carefully picked their way over the large rocks for home.

While Wonder has continued to haul-out every single day, requiring many volunteer and responder hours, Mystery has not been sighted for several days. Both seals are exhibiting signs of respiratory issues, with coughing, discharge and parasites - common to young seals after their first hard winter.

Thanks to the many Seal Sitters hotline operators, volunteers, schedulers and first responders (too many to name) who have spent long hours every day trying to safeguard these two yearlings in varying locations, as well as a potential third who hauled out two evenings but was not identified due to darkness.

A special thanks to the members of the Coast Guard, especially Marina and Robin, who were so gracious to our volunteers. True to the Coasties’ motto, they were “Always ready” to help out and gave the hotline a heads up when the pups came ashore. At the end of one long day and night, they surprised our late-duty volunteers with s’mores, roasted over their firepit overlooking the Sound. Walking down the darkened beach, headed for home, First Responder Robin and volunteer Jonel laughed and wiped the gooey marshmallow and chocolate bliss from their cheeks and wind-blown hair. It was a sweet ending to a tiring day.
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