The newest visitors to the Outer Banks like to swim in the surf, loaf on the sand to catch some rays and gobble down fish dinners.
These visitors aren’t vacationing tourists but migrating seals that swim 500 or so miles to North Carolina during winter and early spring. The ocean-going marine mammals, mostly gray seals and harbor seals, come from growing colonies in New England and Canada.
For a few months a year, the Outer Banks becomes seal country. As many as 34 have been photographed hauled out on an island in Oregon Inlet, the island looking as if it temporarily belonged in Maine.
Seals have been seen in the Wilmington area and, in 2010, one long-range juvenile harbor seal floated ashore on Hilton Head Island, S.C.
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Seals in North Carolina? The northerly animals evoke images of ice floes, rocky shorelines and pods of piled-up pinnipeds. What are they doing here?
Looking for food. They’re mostly pups that can’t yet compete with adults in their home waters up north so they head south to forage for fish, said Karen Clark, program director of the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education in Corolla. The center is operated by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
People approach them. They don’t realize they are wild animals. You get too close to them and they get aggressive. They can bite.
Karen Clark, program director of the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education in Corolla
Typically, Clark said, seals begin showing up in January from the Virginia line to Ocracoke in Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The first sighting of 2016 occurred several weeks ago, a harbor seal at Southern Shores. After traveling hundreds of miles, seals need to rest on the beach to recuperate. Some explore the Albemarle and Currituck Sounds, clambering onto docks and occasionally lounging in the back yards of sound-side homes.
Along with gray and harbor seals, the mix includes occasional harp seals and hooded seals. Last year Outer Bankers called in 102 sightings to the OBX Marine Mammal Stranding Network, said Clark, who trains volunteers to check out the seals. She estimated that 30-40 seals accounted for the January-April sightings, as a single seal is often seen by multiple people. In spring, the seals go back north.
Seals historically have ranged to N.C. waters. In the 1880 book, “History of North American pinnipeds, a monograph of the walruses, sea-lions, sea-bears and seals of North America,” author Joel Asaph Allen cited a newspaper report of a seal in the New River in Onslow County. The Feb. 18, 1878 item in the Wilmington Star described the capture of a 7-foot-long, 250-pound “spotted” seal, likely a harbor seal.
Since 1972, seals have been protected by the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, making it illegal to shoot or harm the animals. Seal populations have rebounded after nearly being wiped out. The 2015 stock assessments by the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration show the population of harbor seals is 66,884-75,834; gray seals, 331,000.
Clark said seal sightings have increased in the past 15 years to the point that the stranding network trains volunteers to respond. They see if the animals are healthy or injured. The network is a partnership of the wildlife commission and the national seashore.
She said most are healthy. Injured or diseased animals are taken to the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center at Virginia Beach or the National Aquarium at Baltimore for treatment and rehab.
A gray seal pup with a broken jaw found in 2011 at Kitty Hawk was taken to the Baltimore aquarium. The pup, named Guinness, for the beer, as he was found on St. Patrick’s Day, also suffered from pneumonia, according to the National Aquarium.
After surgery, Guinness gained nearly 30 pounds on a diet of fish. On June 24, weighing 110 pounds, he was fitted with a radio collar and released into the Atlantic. From then until August 10, when the aquarium received his last satellite signal, the seal had traveled more than 1,000 miles.
On the Outer Banks, volunteers keep an eye on resting seals and ask people stay 150 feet away. The cuddly-looking animals with shoe-button eyes prove irresistible to some, who want to photograph or admire them up close.
“People approach them,” Clark said. “They don’t realize they are wild animals. You get too close to them and they get aggressive. They can bite. The goal is to let them rest without being disturbed while they’re out there.”
Want to know more?
The OBX Marine Mammal Stranding Center web site is https://sites.google.com/site/obxmmsn.