Unlikely visitor: Gray seal spends time on southern North Carolina beaches

ablythe@newsobserver.comMay 24, 2013 

  • A visitor from the North

    The gray seal is found on both shores of the North Atlantic Ocean.

    In the Western North Atlantic, the mammals, sometimes called horsehead seals because of their large snouts, typically are found in large numbers in the coastal waters of Canada south to about New Jersey.

    Gray seals, which live in the sea and on land, can hold their breath for more than an hour.

The crowds that flock to North Carolina’s southern beaches for the Memorial Day weekend might catch a glimpse of an unusual sunbather.

A gray seal, a mammal native to more northern waters, has been surprising fishermen and other beach-goers along the sands of Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach and Kure Beach in New Hanover County.

The young male is molting, observers say, shedding his reddish-brown youthful coat for a darker fur that ranges from brown-gray to black.

While young bulls go through the annual shedding process, marine biologists say, they tend to spend a good deal of their time on land, eating much less than usual.

Jason Kelly, a manager at the Brigs restaurant in Wake Forest, was fishing early Wednesday morning with a friend at Carolina Beach when they came upon the seal.

The men got an early start after spending the night on the beach at Freeman Park at the northern tip of town. Kelly said he could hardly believe his eyes when the seal, also known as the “hooked-nose sea pig,” started rolling around in the shallow water then hauled itself up onto the sand.

With its short forelimbs, the seal awkwardly lugged its long body farther and farther away from the water, seemingly unafraid of the astonished fishermen.

“I’m thinking this is a once in a lifetime thing unless you’re at SeaWorld,” Kelly, 33, said Friday.

So Kelly did what he thought SeaWorld staff might do. He threw bait fish toward the visitor from the northern Atlantic.

Unbeknownst to Kelly, though, getting within 50 yards of the wild animal and feeding it is against the law.

“It’s adorable and looks cute and cuddly,” said Peggy Sloan, executive director of the nearby Fort Fisher Aquarium. “But in reality, it’s a wild animal. They’ve got huge teeth.”

Male gray seals can grow to 10 feet long and 880 pounds. The females stay slightly smaller, typically growing to 7 1/2 feet long and 550 pounds.

They consume between 4 percent and 6 percent of their body weight daily, munching on fish, crustaceans, squid, octopus and occasionally seabirds. They usually consume smaller fish underwater, but the seals might bring a bigger fish to the surface where it can be broken into smaller pieces with their forelimb claws and sharp teeth.

While it’s unusual for a gray seal to be this far south, it is not uncommon for a young male to test the waters and adventure far from his family.

The grand adventurer in the southern North Carolina waters does not appear to have anything wrong with him, observers say. His travels tend to take him near piers, where fish are plenty.

But as fascinating as this beach newcomer is, Sloan and others are worried about fending off the Memorial Day weekend crowds that might be drawn to the novelty. Crews are working to get fliers up and notice out to people who might not know to keep their distance.

“It’s going to be a tough time to be a seal,” Sloan said.

Kelly, the Wake County man who had no idea that such rules existed, took several photos and videos with his phone so he could show his 10-year-old and 11-year-old daughters.

“To see this on the coast of North Carolina is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Kelly said.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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