Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Plenty of Seals but Nary a Shark

If you visit Shark Reef Sanctuary on Lopez Island, you will not see a single shark. This small haven of rugged cliffs, tidepools, and tall trees is named after offshore rocks that, in the words of The Dog-Lover's Companion to the Pacific Northwest, are "as chiseled as a shark's teeth."

But you will see harbor seals. The seals haul out onto the rocks when the tide is low to bask in the sun (or at least to relax in a slightly warmer place than the water, on a gray day). You'll need binoculars to see them as the rocks are not snuggled up against the shore.

They lie in groups of three or so, looking like downed blimps as they doze. Sometimes they curl their bodies into a C shape with tail and head pointing up. Their gray-brown pelts are mottled with spots, so people have sometimes dubbed them leopard seals--though they're nothing like the ferocious penguin-eaters of that name in Antarctica.

You can tell if a seal has been in your house because you'll find that all the fish in your freezer has been looted, every can of tuna fish opened and cleaned out, and even the Goldfish crackers may be gone (and don't even bother to look inside your aquarium if you, fish). Because harbor seals eat fish, fish, and more fish. When the tide rises, all these seal-sausages will slide off the grilling rocks and back in the sea to hunt.

Males are bigger than females, and pups grow fast, so I don't know if we saw any young seals in this bunch. A fascinating pinniped fact is that harbor-seal pups shed the lanugo--the baby coat of soft, fluffy fur--before they are born, with the exception of harbor seals born farther north in Arctic regions, which retain theirs for a while after birth.

A few years ago, while camping along the Oregon coast, we did come across a harbor-seal pup on the shore. Seal cows typically leave their pups on shore to rest while they're off hunting fish; likewise, weaned pups haul out on beaches to warm up and relax. So a pup on its own is not necessarily an abandoned pup.

Needless to say, the pups are very vulnerable in this situation, both to predation by animals such as eagles and harassment, injury, or death caused by humans and unleashed dogs. Even kind-hearted people can do them harm. One local woman put a seal pup in her bathtub, filled it with tap water, and tossed in clams; the pup, which hadn't yet been weaned, died. A luckier pup was the one unwittingly "rescued" by a young couple on vacation, who picked it up and kept in their hotel room overnight; that one was rehabbed by PAWS of Lynnwood and later set free. Hence, organizations such as Seal Sitters have sprung up to keep an eye on pups in this situation.

It's those soulful eyes at work. When you focus the binoculars and train them on the seals offshore, you often find that those seemingly oblivious creatures are looking back, calmly taking in all the activity back on land.

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