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Frosty's death a harsh reality for weaned pups

We are very disheartened to report the death of seal pup Frosty late Christmas Eve. Frosty had been using the beach at Luna Park for a number of days in a row, entertaining not only volunteers and Seattle-area residents, but visitors from as far away as Paris, France. Aside from one coughing spell early on the 23rd, this chubby and alert male gave all indications of being a healthy pup. He did look a bit thinner Christmas Eve, but returned briskly to the water that evening and we fully expected to see him on Christmas morning.

Around 9pm Saturday night, the hotline received a call of a pup “sleeping peacefully” on the beach. Our responder instead found a dead pup. There, in the darkness, we examined both the pup and the area surrounding him. There were no human footprints or animal tracks to indicate foul play or the presence of a predator nor any obvious cause of death. By the beam of the flashlight, our investigator was saddened by the realization that it was most likely Frosty, who had distinctive markings under his eyes (photo comparisons late that night confirmed the identity). We could see his haulout tracks leading a distance up from the water’s edge to the rocks below the sea wall and his return tracks halfway back to the Sound where he died.

Frosty’s body was delivered to the WDFW Marine Mammal Investigations Unit early Christmas morning for necropsy. Many thanks to volunteer Theresa for making that long, sad drive on a holiday. The subsequent necropsy revealed that Frosty had been foraging very successfully, with a belly of fish bones and parts, and was in fair body condition. However, his lungs and trachea were filled with lungworms and he had pneumonia complicated by a bacterial infection. The biologist was amazed that he had been able to continue to dive and catch fish with such limited lung capacity.

So, why is it that weaned pups are so much more at risk for parasite loads and infection than adult seals? As Dyanna Lambourn, WDFW marine mammal biologist explains, a nursing pup gains temporary or “passive” immunity from mom’s milk which contains a high density of white blood cells. While nursing, if that pup is exposed to a parasite or virus, his body will begin to develop its own antibodies - all the while being stimulated and reinforced by mom’s immunity. Once weaned, however, the pup’s immune system no longer has that support and quickly becomes suppressed. If the now vulnerable pup is exposed to a new worm or virus, he may not be able to build antibodies quickly enough to fight it off or the accompanying complications. As Dyanna says, it is similar to sending your child off to kindergarten, where suddenly she is exposed to a myriad of new “bugs.” But pups weaned at only 4-6 weeks don’t have mom’s milk and protection to nurse them back to health.

Weaned pups face extreme challenges. Learning to catch fish can be a daunting task. As they struggle to learn to forage on their own and become thinner, losing that layer of blubber that provides warmth and energy, opportunistic parasites and viruses can take hold. Contaminants in our polluted waters drastically compound the risk to weaned pups. Storm runoff contaminants, such as pcbs and flame retardants, enter the food chain and further weaken a pup’s already compromised immune system.

As we have stated many times in our public outreach, a seal pup has only a 50% chance of survival the first year. This is why it is so imperative that people allow them the best chance possible - by giving them space on shore to rest and warm up. This simple act can truly be the difference between life and death. The total number of dead pups in West Seattle since August has now reached 16 - while only 5 of those belonged to our database of the 50 pups we’ve watched over this season (Tiny, Bianca, Qayak, Aquarius and now, Frosty). This white little pup Frosty brought a tremendous amount of joy and awareness to all who watched over him this Christmas season.

Tired volunteers watch over resting pups

Seal Sitters’ West Seattle volunteers are dragging from very long hours watching over multiple pups on beaches on all corners of our community. Wednesday morning, Bianca returned to her favorite, not so safe spot. She looked healthy and rested for a number of hours. The hotline also received a call about a seal pup at Lincoln Park. Good samaritan Jim protected a very rotund Blacky on the log-covered beach (see photo) until our over-extended volunteers could arrive. Thank you so much, Jim! And thanks, too, to Trileigh and Barb who did the same last week, keeping people and dogs away until we could arrive at the park. Blacky crawled up closer to the sea wall and slept among the logs.

Late in the afternoon, we received a call that a small pup had just hauled out on a city-side beach (photo left). Our responders found the very small and chubby pup resting in the waves. Nicknamed Oona, he had a very long snooze on the beach as the Seattle skyline twinkled at dark. He was so fat and small that we thought we might have a nursing pup; however, photos of teeth reveal that he is indeed weaned and on his own.

Yesterday, volunteers were stretched to the max as we had four pups on shore at the same time in different West Seattle locations. We had pups at two different Beach Drive parks, a pup hauled out a city-side beach and seal pup Bianca, who returned for the fifth day in a row, resing a full ten hours before she returned to Elliott Bay at high tide. Needless to say, our volunteers were exhausted and we cannot thank them enough. The hotline handled 22 phone calls yesterday. The hotline operators and volunteer schedulers deserve many kudos for all their hard work, day after day.

The Sno-King wing of Seal Sitters (responding to calls in Seattle and beaches to the north) has been looking after a pup who has been returning to the same beach for several days running.

Pup-o-Rama still playing in West Seattle

West Seattle continues to be a hotspot for seal pups to haul out and try to catch some z’s. Responders have had their hands full trying to stay on top of reports of pups from one end of WS to the next - not to mention trying to keep up with the blog. Sunday, the 25th, was our quietest day after a number of days in a row with multiple pups. Sunday we had one pup at Lincoln Park who popped on and off shore throughout the day as volunteers monitored the pup’s movement.

Monday, a day of heavy rain and winds, found a new pup lounging in the middle of Don Armeni boat launch. Since there was one lone boat that launched and no trailers in the lots, the pup rested for the day on the cement “beach” (photo above). Pups are attracted to boat ramps because the docks over the water are habitat for the tiny fish that seal pups favor and the ramps are just like one endless beach to them. Food and a nice resting place is attractive to a pup. However, a boat ramp is an extremely dangerous place for a pup to call home - a seal pup was run over this season at the Steilacoom boat ramp. Our new big and healthy weaned pup, dubbed Bianca for her white coat, returned to the water late in the afternoon after being protected by hardy and dedicated volunteers standing in a cold rain. In the meantime, our investigator responded to reports of two dead seal pups at Lincoln Park. Those pups were taken for necropsy and we will post the results when we receive them. The two pups are not ones our volunteers have looked after.

Tuesday brought sunshine and three visitors. The hotline received a call that a pup was on a Duwamish Head beach. Sure enough, our responder found Bianca onshore, stretching in the warm morning sun. Our volunteers and the few walkers along the sea wall enjoyed her antics. About two hours later, a very small pup came ashore just around the bend from her. This pup was quite chubby and alert, but quickly zonked out and took a long snooze as onlookers oohed and ahhed from the sidewalk above. The pup, named appropriately enough, Chunky, and Bianca both returned to Elliott Bay when the tide rose and the beach vanished. As Bianca and Chunky were still lounging on the sand, we responded to a report of a pup at Lincoln Park, Blacky, whom volunteers looked over til very late afternoon. Unfortunately, Bianca reappeared early evening at the very unsafe boat launch - where off leash dogs, many people and trucks, trailers, boats and cars are too close. If you see a pup on the boat ramp, please call our hotline immediately @ 206-905-SEAL (7325).
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