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Seal pup Frankie enjoys a sunny day at Alki

This year’s seal pup season has been by far the strangest in Seal Sitters’ 11 year history. Usually in September and October, first responders and hotline operators are swamped with calls about seal pups who are trying to find a quiet spot to rest on West Seattle’s busy beaches. Not so this year. Without a single call about a live pup in over 5 weeks, responders were wondering what the heck was going on.

That dry spell finally ended this morning when SSMMSN Hotline Operator Cheri fielded a report of a seal pup on Alki Beach. When First Responder Robin arrived about 10 minutes later, she was delighted to see two SW Precinct Police officers standing next to barricades they had placed at a respectable distance on either side of a tiny seal pup. Thanking the officers, they replied that it was the best duty they could ask for - protecting a sweet little seal on a sunny day at the beach. The officers had been nearby and were alerted by a resident.

As Robin stretched tape and pounded in stakes, First Responders Lynn and Dana came down to lend a hand on this very windy morning. Volunteer Scheduler Molly checked the online calendar and began making calls to those who had entered time for the day. A young boy, enjoying Alki with his family, was fascinated by the furry little critter and named the seal Frankie.

SS volunteer Helen showed up with her large scope and tripod strapped on her back. She set it up at the east end of the perimeter so people could get a closeup look. Brand new Seal Sitter Margy, positioned at the far opposite end of the wide buffer zone, talked to a steady stream of rapt people, all wondering what the fuss and tape was about. Lots of stickers were given out to appreciative children. Volunteer Jimi was on standby for her afternoon shift.

Frankie was alert to activity (a good sign), but had some coughing bouts and most certainly has some respiratory issues. Because they are almost always on the thin side with a compromised immune system, most weaned seal pups in the late fall and winter are coping with some kind of viral problem caused by lungworms.

It’s all too often a struggle for seal pups to survive stacked odds - a 50% mortality rate the first year. That’s why it is so important that we allow them the space to come ashore, warm up out of the cold water and re-charge, so they have the strength to battle through these challenges.

About 2 1/2 hours after the first report, Frankie decided he’d had enough of a group of pesky seagulls who were disturbing his nap time. He moved easily to the water’s edge and disappeared into the choppy waves of Puget Sound. We’ll be on the lookout for Frankie, should the pup return for more rest tomorrow.

Sad end for seal pup Tawnie

Yesterday afternoon, Seal Sitters hotline operator Kristen received a report about a dead seal pup across from Me-Kwa-Mooks Park on West Seattle’s scenic Beach Drive.

When First Responders Dana and Robin arrived and peered down from the seawall, their worst fears were realized - the terribly thin pup Tawnie with the mysterious hump on his back was wrapped in kelp on the rocky beach. Tawnie (means “little one” in Gypsy) had been observed on a private beach late Friday afternoon (photo above). The pup returned to the Sound around 6pm, forced in by an encroaching tide and had not been seen since. It was thought that the hump was perhaps an abscess or injury to the spine. Volunteers had been on alert for the return of Tawnie in order to do a health assessment and treatment.

As the two responders approached the still, silvery body on the beach Monday, it was clear that the baseball-sized lump was not an abscess, but instead due to an injured or deformed spine. A phone call was place to WDFW marine mammal biologist Dyanna Lambourn to request a necropsy.

A quick on the beach exam by our responders revealed that Tawnie was male and measured only 77cm. The tiny body was placed in a cooler with ice and driven to WDFW’s Lakewood lab that evening.

Dyanna performed the necropsy the following morning and reports that there was indeed a deformity to the spine and possibily the chest cavity. There were no obvious signs of recent trauma. It is like due to a birth defect, but a radiograph will be more definitive and she chose to keep the carcass intact for films.

Tawnie was horribly skinny, weighing a mere 10 kgs with only a .4 blubber thickness. According to Dyanna, the pup probably did fine while nursing, but once he was on his own, limited mobility would have posed challenges for Tawnie to forage effectively. What a very sad ending for such a gorgeous 1-2 month old pup.

We will provide an update once we get results from the radiographs. This has been a tough year so far! It’s about time for some fat, happy blubberballs for us to look after.

Ailing adult seal rests on private beach

A concerned waterfront homeowner contacted Seal Sitters yesterday afternoon. A large seal was resting on the private stretch of beach between the Alki Lighthouse and Alki Promenade. First Responder David was allowed access through the reporting party’s property and found a dark-coated adult seal close to the water’s edge. He was told the seal had been “rolling” in the surf before coming ashore.

David gave Robin a call, who went down to observe as well since it is abnormal to have an adult seal on the beach in West Seatte. Adults are highly wary of people and a healthy seal would flee at the sight of nearby humans. Through binoculars and photos from a telephoto lens, we could see some bloodied wounds on the rear end. Knowing that the transient orcas had been along Alki and in Elliott Bay the day before, we worried the seal might have suffered injuries in an orca encounter. Often, orcas ram seals, sea lions and porpoises, causing serious injuries not always visible to the naked eye. We sought the opinion of SR3, part of the NOAA-approved marine mammal consulting veterinary program.

SR3’s veterinary nurse (and new SSMMSN volunteer) Casey McLean arrived with their transport ambulance (just in case) and observed the seal’s wounds though binocs at a closer distance. The adult, nicknamed Mocha for his rich brown coat, reluctantly returned to Puget Sound shortly afterwards as the incoming tide lapped over him.

Detailed photos of Mocha’s body condition and wounds were sent to SR3’s veterinarian, Dr. Lesanna Lahner, and WDFW’s marine mammal biologist Dyanna Lambourn. Dyanna, who has spent upwards of 30 years studying harbor seals in the wild, felt the flipper wounds were consistent with male seals fighting during mating season.

Harbor seals mate in area rookeries after females give birth and nurse their young. Adult males establish underwater territories to mate and will defend that territory vigorously to keep other males away.

Seal Sitters MMSN will continue to monitor Mocha if he returns ashore to get some much-needed rest. We are thankful he chose private property yesterday with very little foot traffic or off leash dogs.

Seal pup humanely euthanized

Following up on a hotline report of a seal at Weather Watch Park, Seal Sitters First Responders David and Eilene headed down to the small beach late Friday afternoon. Earlier in the day, they had watched over a small pup resting below the sea wall near Alki Beach who was forced back into Puget Sound by an encroaching tide. This newest response was to the same small pup.

Taping off the entrance to the beach, a call was placed to Volunteer Scheduler Karin and a “seal on the beach now” email was sent out. Karin lined up volunteers Judy, Jimi and Dori (the latter brand new trainees). Responders Lynn, Robin and Dana all dropped by to help.

The pup was tiny and terribly thin - not a good sign - and had some kind of issue with the left eye. Photos of a wide yawn revealed a full set of teeth which would indicate the pup was close to weaning or newly weaned. At 9:40pm Friday night, the pup, nicknamed Randy, was still resting on the beach and the cove remained closed throughout the night.

At 6:30am, Dana checked the beach and Randy was in the same spot. She observed seizures and dialed Robin who drove down to the Park. A call was promptly placed to NOAA since many of the area’s consulting marine mammal vets were dealing with the live stranded juvenile gray whale on Washington’s outer coast. PAWS Wildlife Center was then contacted for possible euthanasia, though rehab was very much a possibility if the pup seemed viable.

Robin and David captured the pup, who was transported to the facility in Lynnwood. Sadly, shortly after intake and exam, he was euthanized for a number of health issues. Measuring only 80cm in length and weighing just 7.405kg (a little over 16lbs), Randy also had a serious eye injury: the cornea had ruptured, causing a nasty infection. It was deemed by PAWS veterinary staff that euthanasia was the most humane option. While a blind seal can survive in the wild since they are able to use their whiskers to locate prey, there were just too many hurdles for this little pup to overcome.

WDFW Marine Mammal Biologist Dyanna Lambourn will perform a necropsy on Randy and we will update with findings here.

Thanks to everyone who kept Randy safe from harm and suffering.

Molting elephant seal makes a surprise 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 year 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 marine mammal that is relatively uncommon in South and Central Puget Sound. 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 huge seal made the move to the water’s edge, rolling along with powerful undulations - much like a tank - and slowly swam away. Seal Sitters volunteers and a transfixed public watched Tank slowly drift west and out of sight. Thanks to the many volunteers who help give this seal in need a little peace onshore today.

Rescued abandoned pup a likely victim of harassment

(see health update end of post) Yesterday’s coordinated effort to capture a rail-thin, newborn harbor seal pup was a prime example of the often collaborative workings of NOAA’s Marine Mammal Stranding Network members and supporting organizations.

Waterfront homeowners called Seal Sitters’ hotline (206-905-7325) concerned that there was a possible dead seal pup on a raft off private beach property. While a number of seals had used the raft for the past couple of weeks, the pup had been entirely alone for two days. Seal Sitters responders were allowed access to assess the situation. We were informed that kayakers had been regularly coming within 10 or so feet of the raft recently and that a paddle boarder had even sat on the platform with the pup. This is an overt violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act that protects marine mammals from illegal harassment. Is it any wonder that the pup was abandoned? Always stay back from resting seals.

After observing the horribly skinny pup for some time and seeing no movement, it was determined that the pup had indeed likely died. Responders left and brain-stormed a plan to retrieve the body by kayak. WDFW’s Dyanna Lambourn was called to see if she could necropsy the pup if fresh-dead enough for tissue and blood samples. Just as that option was being put into motion, the homeowner called to say he had seen movement - the pup had lifted a flipper. Our recovery mission had just become a rescue.

Now, we had a new set of challenges. Capture of a live pup via kayak would be unlikely to succeed. A call was put into NOAA’s Kristin Wilkinson to get permission to contact SR3, a new marine mammal-focused non-profit with a Zodiac vessel, to see if they might assist. Only members of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network are allowed to approach and handle marine mammals. Permission was granted. SR3 Director and Veterinarian Lesanna Lahner jumped at the opportunity to help.

Later in the afternoon, Lesanna and marine biologist Doug Sandilands of SR3 rounded Alki Point in their black and orange Zodiac, headed for the small raft near Lowman Beach.

While SR3’s Casey McLean waited with their new ambulance and SS Responders Robin, Lynn, David and Eilene observed from shore, the rescue was attempted. The first effort was unsuccessful as the pup, now nicknamed Gilligan, slipped off his small wooden island into Puget Sound as the boat got close and Lesanna swooped the landing net.

Lesanna and Doug waited patiently nearby for the pup to return. After about half an hour, the pup managed with difficulty to get back up onto the raft and settled in for a snooze. The boat roared into action (photo above) and, miraculously, Lesanna managed to scoop up the surprised animal and transfer him into a kennel.

The ambulance and first responders met the boat at Don Armeni launch where Gilligan was given a quick exam and got a good look at Dr. Lesanna (at left) and the people who helped rescue him. The male pup weighed a mere 13 lbs and was driven to PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood for stabilization and treatment.

We will post a health update once we hear from PAWS today. Because he is so thin and possibly has some pneumonia, Gilligan faces an uphill battle.

Huge thanks to the homeowners who not only reported this pup in trouble, but graciously allowed us access to assist in Gilligan’s rescue. It was an exhilarating and rewarding effort by all involved!

PUPDATE 8/10/17
PAWS reports that Gilligan is doing okay, seemingly with no significant health issues except being grossly underweight. Further tests may reveal underlying causes.

First seal pup of the season visits Lincoln Park

Seal Sitters volunteers had been wondering when our first newborn or weaned pup of the season would show up around West Seattle. That question was answered late on Sunday afternoon when Hotline Operator Kristen received a call about a pup onshore just north of the swimming pool at Lincoln Park.

First Responder Dana arrived on scene to find a tiny, velvety pup nestled near the woody debris, high on the beach just feet from the walking path. With the help of a few enthusiastic beach-goers, including the reporting party, she managed to get a quick perimeter in place around the resting pup.

Volunteer Scheduler Molly began making calls to line up people to protect the vulnerable pup. Volunteers Allison and Karen put in long hours along with Lynn, David and Eilene, Buzz and Barbara - all trying their best to keep people moving along the walkway after taking a quick photo and avoid unnecessary disturbance to the tiny harbor seal.

We hoped to get a peek at the belly to see if there was an umbilical cord or stub to help us determine age. Murmuring “Roll over, roll over,” Dana came up with the clever name of Beethoven. Eventually, Beethoven did roll over and we could see no stub. The pup yawned widely and showed numerous teeth that had not quite fully emerged. Assuming Beethoven was not born prematurely, he is probably about 3 weeks old and still nursing age. However, based on body weight and conditon, it was apparent that the mother had not been around, attending her pup. One of the many challenges a newborn pup faces is abandonment due to disturbance from people and dogs.

As darkness fell and Beethoven returned to the Sound, plans were put into place for a vet consultation and health assessment if the pup returned the following day to Lincoln Park or a nearby beach. Lincoln Park shoreline was scoured Monday morning, but Beethoven has not been sighted since.

Harbor seal pupping season well underway in Washington

Now that Pacific Northwest residents are finally getting hot summer weather, many will be heading for beaches to enjoy some sun and vacation time. This is a reminder that seal pupping season is currently well underway along Washington’s coast and the inland waters.

Rotund pregnant females (photo right) can be seen hauled out on sandbars and rocky outcroppings, waiting to give birth. Seal moms with nursing newborns, along with pups that are newly weaned and independent, are resting on shore, log booms, private docks and marinas. For a map showing pupping seasons in the various regions of Washington state, click here.

Please be alert if you are strolling along ocean and Puget Sound beaches. On outer coast beaches that permit driving of motorized vehicles, be extra cautious - a tiny seal pup can look like a piece of bleached driftwood, easily run over and killed. If you come across a pup, please stay back and observe quietly from a distance. Contact the local stranding network.

It is normal for a seal pup to be alone on the beach - always keep dogs leashed and away. Stay back. Occasionally a mother harbor seal will leave her pup resting alone, returning to nurse. Or, if a pup was born on a dock or raft, often the pup cannot get back up onto the structure with mom and will end up on shore nearby. If there are people and dogs too close, she may abandon the pup. Most times, however, the pup will accompany mom to learn how to forage. Once pups are weaned at 4-6 weeks, they will be all on their own, using shoreline daily to rest and warm up before returning to the water. Seals of all ages rest on shore about 50% of their day. Undisturbed, stress-free rest is crucial to their survival.

If you are boating, stay 100 yards away from harbor seal haul-outs, where large numbers of seals gather for safety during pupping season. A study has shown that passing boats and kayaks are less fearsome, but vessels that stop are likely to cause animals to flush from shore. Always stay back. If the colony is disrupted, newborn pups may be abandoned due to boating disturbance and harassment. Stay back as well from log booms, rafts and docks with resting seals.

It is illegal to disturb marine mammals. Harassment can be reported by calling NOAA Office for Law Enforcement’s national hotline at 1-800-853-1964 (information may be left anonymously, but details are critical for enforcement purposes).

In South Puget Sound, seal pupping season usually begins in late-June and extends into the first week of September. As pups are weaned in area rookeries, they venture off to surrounding areas. West Seattle’s busiest months for newly weaned seal pups are September and October, but over the past few years, more lanugo (premature) and newborn pups have been seen here in June. These newborn pups in urban areas, like lanugo pup Luigi, are highly likely to be abandoned because of human activity and off-leash dogs.

If you see a pup alone onshore, stay back and notify your local Marine Mammal Stranding Network. In West Seattle, call the Seal Sitters hotline @ 206-905-SEAL (9325). Click the links for a map of stranding networks in the Pacific Northwest: Washington map | Puget Sound map | Oregon map

Visit Seal Sitters’ website to learn more about harbor seals.

Help protect marine mammals - volunteer!

Join Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network! Volunteers are vital for the protection of seal pups and other marine mammals. Now in our 11th year, we also perform a public service by providing education about marine life and our fragile marine ecosystem to local residents and visitors from around the world.

Seal Sitters MMSN holds several special trainings a year for those wanting to protect marine mammals along the shoreline of West Seattle and the Duwamish River.

We are a very active network and have volunteers who travel from around the area to participate. However, if you live out of the West Seattle area and would like to find a stranding network closer to where you live, click here.

*Please note:
Every stranding network requires their own unique training -
attending a Seal Sitters MMSN training does not qualify you to volunteer for networks in a differing location.

Unlike most marine mammal stranding networks, we encourage children to participate in Seal Sitters - supervised at all times, of course, by a parent or guardian. We are so proud of our amazing and dedicated volunteers who are on duty rain or shine - we hope you will join us!

A multi-media presentation will illustrate our educational work in the community and the unique challenges of protecting seals and other marine mammals in an urban environment. Included in the training is an overview of NOAA's West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network and biology and behavior of seals and other pinnipeds (due to time frame, supplementary sessions will include more marine mammals of Puget Sound).
10am-12:30pm (doors open at 9:30am, training starts promptly at 10)
*please arrive early to receive paperwork

(*there is no church affiliation with Seal Sitters MMSN)
front meeting room
6115 SW Hinds St
West Seattle (map it here)

RSVP required to attend. (*please include full name and name/ages of children)

*PARENTS PLEASE NOTE: all children in attendance must be able to sit quietly through an approximate 2 hour training session with a short break.

For additional questions and info or to be placed on a contact list for future training opportunities, please email us.

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!
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