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elephant seal

Molting elephant seal makes a surpise appearance

Puget Sound is teeming with a variety of marine life so hotline operators and first responders never know what the day will bring. Hotline Gretchen got slammed with phone calls around 8:30 this morning from people concerned there was an injured sea lion near the Alki Bathhouse. First Responder Lynn was shocked to find a Northern elephant seal.

It was easy to see why callers were worried. The animal looked terrible - crusty with seaweed, a rough patchy coat, abrasions and cracked skin. “Ellies” go through an exhausting catastrophic molt each yesr and it isn’t a pretty sight. Over the course of a number of weeks, they spend many hours onshore as they shed the entire outer layer of skin and fur. They can sometimes develop infections. This large, rotund seal at the base of the steps to the beach was flipping sand over its back and pressing wet, cool sand along its sides with the foreflippers, trying to get some relief.

One of the callers who reported the seal, Judy stuck around til Lynn arrived and pitched in to help set the tape perimeter. SS First Responders David and Eilene arrived lugging high-visibility cones, stakes and signboards. Because the tide was rapidly receding, the tape barrier was constantly extended to create a safey zone. Scheduler Molly arrived and promptly lined up volunteers Jen, Karen, Melinda, Gordon, Aaron and Karin who talked to the hundreds of curious people who came by. Dr. Liz Mansi, who recently participated in NOAA’s consulting veterinarian training, came at Lynn’s request to assess the seal’s condition.

Volunteers emphasized to the public that this was a very unique opportunity to see a relatively uncommon (for Central and South Puget Sound) marine mammal. Northern elephant seals are the largest pinniped found in Pacific Northwest waters. Adult males may weigh over 2,000 lbs and feature a large inflatable proboscis. Females are much smaller in size at around 1,000 lbs with an elongated snout.

Elephant seals usually keep to the outer coast, but over the past decade, a small colony has established itself at Race Rocks Ecological Reserve in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The first pup was born there in 2009. There are a few locations where individuals will haul out in the inland waters. According to WDFW Marine Mammal Investigations Unit’s Steve Jeffries, pups have now been born at Protection, Smith and Whidbey islands, Dungeness Spit and Race Rocks - with a total of 10 to 15 pups born annually. Over the years, Seal Sitters has responded to three female elephants seals, all located south of the Fauntleroy ferry terminal, the last one in 2011.

It is estimated that the Alki elephant seal was a subadult, 6ft long and about 600 lbs. Thanks to WDFW’s marine mammal biologist Dyanna Lambourn for reviewing photos.

Around noon, the seal moved to the water’s edge and slowly swam away. Seal Sitters volunteers and a transfixed public watched it slowly drift west and out of sight. Thanks to the many volunteers who help give this seal in need a little peace onshore today.

Molting elephant seal finds secret hideaway

A juvenile elephant seal surprised workers at a Commencement Bay waterfront business Wednesday morning. WDFW Marine Mammal Investigations Unit, the stranding network for a huge geographic territory in South Puget Sound (see map), had received a call Tuesday about a large seal resting on the beach at a marina. The elephant seal returned to the bay at high tide that evening. The following morning, the network received another call about the seal at an adjacent marina. This time, the seal startled a maintenance worker who lifted a hatch on a wooden walkway to access an area underneath the building, which sat on stilts. Much to his astonishment, the seal was nestled in among pipes and netting. Seal Sitters’ responder was in the area (having delivered a dead seal pup to WDFW for necropsy) and she jumped at the chance to check out the “ellie” seal for them.

The young seal appears to be healthy, but is going through a molt, where the first layer of skin and fur is shed over a period of about a month. It can be a very gruesome looking ordeal and seals typically remain onshore during this time without returning to the water to forage. However, once the molt is complete, she will be covered with a new, silky fur coat to protect her from our cold waters. The ellie had picked a very quiet place to molt, but how had she managed to get in there? Our responder went around and under the building to make sure she had an exit from the area if the tide table was too high. Indeed, she had a clear exit to leave if necessary. The employees were excited to have this unusual visitor take up residence to complete her molt, safe and undisturbed. Read more about molting here.

Northern elephant seals are the largest pinniped found in NW waters. The breeding rookeries are located in California and Mexico; however, after the winter breeding season and annual molt, individuals disperse northward along the Oregon and Washington coasts. Small numbers have settled in Puget Sound and use beaches at Destruction Island, Protection Island, Smith and Minor Islands and Dungeness Spit. Births of pups have been recorded at these sites as well.

Molting elephant seal at Golden Gardens

(see update end of story) Seal Sitters responded to calls yesterday of an injured seal at Golden Gardens in Ballard. The first call came in about 3:30 pm but the seal could not be found. Another report came in approximately 7 pm that a seal with “stomach wounds” was on the boat launch at Shilshole Marina. Our responder could not find the seal there, however, noticed a group of people further down the sandy beach who were too close to what turned out to be an elephant seal. Our responder established a large tape perimeter on the beach and proceeded to get a health assessment through observations and video/still images. The seal was obviously going through an unusually difficult molt, but was lying on his/her stomach - hence there was no way to determine if there were indeed wounds or if it was fur and skin missing from the molting process. The seal was alert, but thin and exhibiting typical elephant seal behavior of flipping sand on sides and back. Volunteers watched over the seal (unable to determine sex, but could be either female or juvenile male) until after dark and bystanders were respectful, concerned and inquisitive.

We have embedded a short video clip of the seal who was still on the beach at daybreak this morning. Most of the photos are a bit too gruesome to share since elephant seals’ catastrophic molt (shedding skin and fur all at once) is an ordeal where people often think they are dying. This seal was undergoing a particularly horrific molt with what appeared to be related health issues. The seal returned to the water late morning as the beach became busy with noisy onlookers. One could see the animal’s stress level rise significantly as people talked and moved about and were in the water just on the other side of the protective yellow tape barricade. Please remember that while NOAA recommends staying 100 yards away from any marine mammal on shore, the network tries to establish a reasonable perimeter that protects the seal while not drastically inconveniencing urban beachcombers. This, however, does not mean that it is appropriate to create disturbances close to the tape. Given the extreme low tides and expected nice weather this weekend, we hope this seal finds a quieter place to rest. If you see the seal, please call our hotline @ 206-905-SEAL (7325) immediately and ask people to observe quietly from a distance.

UPDATE: Review of still images by marine mammal experts Friday morning determined that this seal is suffering from at least a moderate case of Northern Elephant Seal Skin Disease (NESDD), which can cause secondary infections and septis and, if left untreated, can be fatal. Sometimes referred to as “scabby molt”, almost all reported cases have been found in 1 - 2 year old elephant seals. Plans had been set into place to relocate the animal to a quieter spot, obtain blood samples and, at the very least, scrub the skin with an anti-bacterial topical solution. Since Washington State has no marine mammal rehab facility, efforts were being made to find a regional facility who might be able to hold and treat the seal more long-term with antibiotics. Unfortunately, before the biologist could arrive to relocate the seal, he/she returned to Puget Sound. Video of the seal leaving the beach further supported the conclusion that the seal was extremely weak and compromised.

Abby the ellie's back in town

Abby, the female elephant seal who was molting on a private beach in early February, is back in West Seattle. Seal Sitters received a call this afternoon from a waterfront homeowner who immediately recognized the huge seal as an elephant seal. Our first responder checked to make sure the seal had no apparent injuries and taped off a perimeter.

Neighbors are keeping a watchful eye over her and spreading the word that dogs need to be on a leash. Volunteers will be monitoring her as necessary. Abby will likely be there for a number of days, tossing sand over her body.

UPDATE: 3/12 7am
Abby was not on the beach at daybreak this morning. There were, however, a number of huge paw prints where she had been hauled out. We hope that the off leash dog was there after she returned to the water.

Abby returns to the Salish Sea after stormy night

Concerns that last night’s high winds and surf would force Abby, the molting elephant seal, from her safe resting place on the private beach proved well-founded. Our volunteer arrived before dawn only to find Abby gone, but then was pleasantly surprised to see her relaxing and blowing bubbles just offshore. Abby spent the next hour and a half drifting leisurely in the calm water reflecting the pink and blue shades of dawn - a very mesmerizing and dreamlike sight. The water rinsing over her sore body, sand-caked eyes and nostrils must have felt a bit like heaven to her. In the video you can see the distinct pointed nose, characteristic of a female elephant seal. Abby drifted slowly southward and it appeared that she might be interested in hauling back out onto the beach, but suddenly there were no more bursts of bubbles and she was gone - most likely out to grab some breakfast after fasting on the beach for several days. Our volunteers scoured beaches throughout the day, but did not see her. We will be checking the same private beach before dawn in case she returns with the high tide. If you are a waterfront homeowner, please call our hotline if she shows up on your beach.

Abby the ellie still resting on private beach

Abby, the healthy elephant seal whom we have been observing since Thursday, spent another day molting on the beach. As the day wore on and the weather improved, more neighbors came down to see this rotund female (yes, it has been confirmed that she is a female) and learn about the molting process of seals. Very early this drizzly morning, Abby reacted to the incoming tide by showing what is typically a defense behavior - opening the mouth and extending the nose (see video). Perhaps she was just longing to return to the sea to wash off her aching body. Tonight’s wind storm should be a challenge for her, but we expect her to still be on the shore. Check back for an update tomorrow. Thanks to all the great beach residents who are being so respectful of Abby’s need for space.

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.

Juvenile elephant seal hauls out in South Puget Sound

A juvenile northern elephant seal has been hauled out on a South Puget Sound beach since Tuesday, Jan. 13th. The yearling female is determined to be in good health, but going through the “molting” process which can cause alarm in onlookers. Most pinnipeds shed their hair gradually over an extended period of time, but elephant seals do it all at once over a period of weeks, a process that is quite uncomfortable for the animal. Read more about the molting process here. The seal is in a location which is highly accessible to the public. If there is sufficient human interference, Fish and Wildlife will be forced to relocate the seal to a quieter site, causing undue stress on the animal.

The largest of all pinnipeds, males can grow to over 4,000 lbs, with females being significantly smaller at 1,500 lbs. Their name derives from their large snout, resembling that of an elephant’s trunk, which is very pronounced on males. This yearling is estimated to weigh 300 lbs.
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