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Harbor Seals of the Outer Banks

Back in November a seal was spotted down on Hatteras Island. People got excited. This was a bit early for the seals, but heck, the humpback whales were migrating by all the way back at the beginning of October. Maybe things were just moving early this year. Well, after that first sighting things were pretty quiet until around Christmas when there was another report. At last, the seals are no longer just a third hand rumor here on the beach. As of last week it would seem that they are here in full force and are popping up on the beaches every day.

Since the reports started rolling in I have been running up and down the Banks in search of seals. Often times however the seals haul out for a quick rest and then back in they go. This means that if your not Jonny on the spot, than you stand a good chance of missing them. Other seals however will haul out for 24 hours or more and then hang out in the same area for weeks or months on end. This was the case with a seal down on Cape Point last year. This is also par for the course on Cora June Island in Hatteras Inlet – which will be a kayak trip for me very soon for this reason.

Why the seals are showing up on our beaches is still something of a mystery. This is all really new stuff for us here. Typically, it was thought that seals home range was Canada and Maine. Then it became Canada and New England with an odd sighting of a pup down in far as Virginia or North Carolina. This is what most of the guide books still claim. However, this is no longer the case as each year the sightings continue to grow. Here on the Outer Banks, folks have even had to organize a Marine Mammal Stranding Network to deal with the sudden influx of seals in the winter.

Lets face it, a baby seal is pretty cute. And it is this cuteness that can really get these guys and people into trouble. While I was photographing this 2-year-old pup I was asked no less than 5 times by folks who happened by if they were allowed to pet it. PET IT!? These guys bite, and if you get bitten the state is required by law to destroy the animal in order to test if for rabies. Really bad idea. This is why education is one of the primary goals of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Now as to exactly why the number of seals here in the winter are growing exponentially, no body knows for sure, but there are a number of theories. One of the dominant theories at the moment is actually quality of beaches. As the New England area is home to one of the largest fishing industries in the world, mortality rates are high due to entanglements, and food sources are dwindling. The idea here being that seals are beginning to move south to find a safer place to live with more abundant food. With that said however, on our beaches we are still only seeing the pups though.

Now its a well-known fact that seal pups will roam far and wide in search of food – much further than their adult counterparts. But there is now speculation that a full-blown seal rookery could be developing on one of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel islands. If this is the case, North Carolina’s beaches would certainly be within reach of harbor seal pups that are birthed there. This is still yet to be seen but it is intriguing.

Here are a couple from a harbor seal pup that hauled out of the water in Kill Devil Hills yesterday afternoon.

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