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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.
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