With an influx of seal sightings on the beaches of Ocean City, viewing these cute visitors is encouraged, so long as you understand and abide by local laws
Each year, the Ocean City area gets interesting new visitors to its shores. Lately, tourists and residents alike have been treated to the sight of seals right off, and sometimes even on, the beaches themselves.
When a seal lies on a beach, it’s called “hauling out,” a normal pinniped (seals, sea lions and walruses) activity that involves temporarily leaving the water between periods of foraging for sites on land or ice. The behavior is a necessity for mating, giving birth, predator avoidance, thermal regulation, social activity, parasite reduction and just plain rest. On the Eastern Shore, seals are only transient visitors, so their haul-outs here are primarily for the purposes of rest and distress.
The significant increase of seal sightings on our beaches and bays is, of course, creating a lot of excitement and social-media activity. And why not? Their doglike faces and snuggly bodies make them very appealing and seemingly approachable. But the fact is, an up-close-and-personal encounter with a seal can impose serious stress on it while creating a potentially dangerous situation for both the humans and the seal. That’s why seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which makes it illegal to touch, feed or otherwise harass a seal. The law also mandates that the viewing of seals at rest must be done from a distance of at least 50 yards. So, as tempting at it may be, definitely refrain from the oh-so-trendy selfie or other posed photography with a seal. Neither should you share your leftover Thrasher’s French fries or any other food with it. And whatever you do, don’t think letting your leashed or unleashed canine “play” with or investigate the seal is in any way cute or enjoyable for the seal. It’s not. In fact, it’s quite traumatic. Seals will bite if they feel threatened, and the infections that may result from such a bite can be dangerous to both dogs and people.
Last year, the Maryland Coastal Bays Program (MCBP) and the National Aquarium Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP) launched an outreach program on responsible seal-viewing and sighting-reporting. As with any outreach program, it takes a long time before the message permeates society sufficiently to become common knowledge. Local and regional media have embraced the cause and are doing what they can, but it’s just as important that full-time and part-time residents of the Eastern Shore remain vigilant by acting responsibly and discouraging and/or reporting visitors and others whose behavior toward these amazing marine mammals represents a violation of law.
MCBP is currently recruiting volunteers as “on-call” seal stewards. When a seal hauls out, seal stewards attend the event to help educate beachgoers and dog walkers while ensuring safe and proper seal-watching. If interested, please write to Sandi at email@example.com, or call her at 410-213-2297, ext 107.
Meanwhile, should you see a seal hanging out on one of our lovely beaches, MARP officials ask that you call their hotline at 1-800-628-9944 or register your sighting on the MCBP website, so a trained observer may evaluate the situation.
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