Ask the Aquarium: Seals on N.C. Coast?
BY SHERRY WHITE
Special to The Pilot
Q. My neighbor is a fisherman and thinks he saw a seal on the beach at Cape Lookout last winter. Does North Carolina have seals?
A. Sometimes. Seeing seals on area beaches is an exciting and fairly new phenomenon. According to news reports and volunteer organizations that monitor beaches, more and more seals are being sighted on North Carolina shores.
On small Green Island near Oregon Inlet, as many as 30 adult seals have been recorded. In November 2010, a harbor seal was reported as far south as the Cape Fear River.
When seals first began appearing on North Carolina beaches in the mid-1990s, sightings were primarily of seal pups. In the last several years, more adults are in the mix, and the total number of seals is increasing.
Most sightings are of animals that have "hauled out" on shore to rest. They sometimes remain in repose for several days. Most sightings occur from late winter to early spring.
The majority seen along our coast are harbor seals from the cold waters off New England. Harbor seals can reach five to six feet in length and weigh close to 300 pounds. Their spotted coats range from silver-gray to black to dark brown. Thus far, North Carolina seems to be their southernmost range.
There are a number of theories as to why seals are venturing southward. Hypotheses range from the animals failing to turn around when they reach the confluence of the cold Labrador Current and the warm Gulf Stream, to their being attracted to the undeveloped beaches, mild water temperatures and substantial food supplies along the Outer Banks.
The impact of climate change has also been proposed as a possible catalyst. Another theory is their protected status under the Marine Mammal Protection Act has increased populations, thus creating a need to expand the range. A combination of these factors is the most likely case.
Human interaction with seals is not only ill-advised but also illegal. Seeing a live seal in the wild is exciting; however, they are wild animals and unpredictable.
Despite their cute, cuddly appearance, they have a vicious bite. People and pets should maintain a safe distance and never approach or try to return a seal to the water.
If you spot what you think may be an injured or distressed seal on a North Carolina beach, call the central coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network coordinated by the NC Division of Marine Fisheries and NC State University at (252) 241-5119.
The state operates three public aquariums: one in Pine Knoll Shores, another at Fort Fisher and a third on Roanoke Island.
For more information about the Aquariums, visit www.ncaquariums.com, or call (800) 832-FISH.
Sherry White works for the public affairs office of the N.C. Aquariums.
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