Too Many Seals?

FILE - A harbor seal pokes its head out of the water. Seals are thriving off the northeast coast thanks to decades of protections.

There are some new faces in the Lewes area, and while scientists are giving them their seal of approval, they're asking the community to give them some space while they get adjusted to their surroundings. 

"The seal colony is not new; it has been developing for a number of years. But what is new is that pups are being born on the colony, and we have determined that based on the age of some of them that are showing up on our beaches," said Marine Education, Research & Rehabilitation Institute Executive Director Suzanne Thurman. "We're getting them at an age that's so young, they would not have been away from their mothers or had the strength or the time to swim here from points north."

Made up of grey seals and harbor seals, the developing seasonal colony's primary home while in Delaware isn't accessible by land, for the most part, and so it's not something beachgoers will typically stumble across accidentally. But Thurman hopes those who find a stray traveler taking a break in the more populated areas will stay away--so no selfies--and notify officials.

"Seals are mammals like we are, so they have the potential to transmit disease to us, to our pets; we have the potential to transmit disease to them; and they also are wild animals," she said. "I don't think anybody would go up and take a selfie with a lion, for example, and seals are very much like dogs and have teeth that can bite."

In the meantime, Delawareans are asked to give the seals some space during the seals' busiest season from March through April, as Thurman anticipates they'll get on their way on their own as the weather turns warmer. 

"It is a seasonal colony, so they're not here all year-round. They show up just as winter is starting, and then leave once the weather starts to warm up in the spring," she said. "We're waiting to see what happens. We don't know what's going to happen with these little pups that are being born here. Are they going to somehow know to swim north as the water temperatures really heat up? We hope so, because this is a pretty warm climate for seals; even in the winter, it's more mild than Canada and the New England area."

Officials from MERR will continue to monitor and conduct surveys to assess how the situation develops as more pups are born. But as exciting as it is for the organization, its also stressful for them to find the resources to address the situation appropriately. 

"You can't help but fall in love with these little pups. They're so precious. But it's also a whole new level of care and work and demands on our limited resources," Thurman said. "We have to look at how we can adapt...and provide the level of care that they need, so we're doing that right now."

Just this past weekend, Thurman said they were monitoring seals on the beaches in Rehoboth, Dewey, and Gordons Pond--all at the same time. While common for them to exit the water to rest, a natural behavior that doesn't necessarily mean anything is wrong, what has been uncommon was the volume of activity Delaware has seen from those members of its ecosystem. 

"It's just been inordinately busy. The numbers of seals that are showing up this year are higher than usual, and then added to that, we have these young pups who are still in need of some care," Thurman said. "They've either been separated from their mothers prematurely, or they've just recently been weaned and haven't quite figured out how to forage, so they're underweight and dehydrated, and that's what we're really stepping up now to provide them with, that kind of care to get them through that initial phase between needing mom and being on their own."

Anyone who spots a seal in the wild, especially a pup, is urged to contact MERR at 302.228.5029.