Baby seals are some of the newest additions at the National Marine Life Center.By Pamela Ellertson | Photography by Julia Cumes
It is the height of seal pupping season in New England and 12 orphaned baby seals in the care of the National Marine Life Center are barking with excitement. It is as if an orchestra comprised entirely of bicycle horns is serenading staff and volunteers as they prepare formula for their next meal of the day. It has been five hours since the pups had their 6 a.m. feeding and they are making it quite clear that they are hungry—again.
Located in Buzzards Bay, the NMLC is the only marine hospital that rehabilitates seals between Maine and Massachusetts. The rehabilitation team nurses scores of injured adult seals and sea turtles back to health throughout the year. But from around mid-April until the end of June, the facility operates at full capacity, transforming into a seal nursery/orphanage.
There are plans for an $18 million expansion to double the space for orphaned seal pups, which would also enable the rehabilitation of a host of additional marine mammals, like dolphins and pilot whales. For now, though, much like the toy-congested living room of a home with a newborn, the rooms and hallways of the NMLC are overflowing with pups and their paraphernalia.
Inside the pup room, four small harbor seals weighing between 10 and 20 pounds learn to swim in a child’s wading pool. Down a hallway cluttered with hoses, towels and animal crates, four more pups ranging from 2-to-4-weeks old, nap while their caregiver, Casey Payne, a Northeastern co-op student, rinses towels her charges slept on.
Pupping season isn’t the only hectic time at the NMLC. This winter, the pools inside its patient ward were overflowing with 26 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. At the same time, the hospital was rehabilitating two mature, but not quite adult, harbor seals.
“We like to compare them to teenagers,” says Kate Shaffer, director of animal care at the NMLC. “They are out in the wild for the first time and they seem to find all the trouble they possibly can.”
Under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, all marine mammals—seals, sea lions, walruses, dolphins, whales and porpoises—are protected from hunting or disruption.
The information gleaned from rehabilitating the seals and sea turtles has implications for life above the shoreline as well, explains NMLC’s executive director and president Kathy Zagzebski. “The science the animals provide serves as canaries in a coal mine—what is happening to marine life can also happen to people.”
One of the factors influencing the NMLC’s acceptance for treatment is the presence of a zoonotic disease, which happens to be a disease that passes between animal species and/or from animals to humans. The Zika virus, Lyme disease and West Nile virus are all examples of zoonotic diseases.
One of the older seals, named Onion Flake by NMLC staff, suffers from a long list of
zoonotic ailments like phocine, also known as seal herpes, which blinded him in one eye.
“This poor seal has had everything,” says Shaffer. His lengthy stay, nine months by pupping season, makes him an outlier at the NMLC. Most seals, including the pups, complete their rehab within four months.
Many marine animals begin their stay at NMLC after being rescued by one of several partnering agencies, like the New England Aquarium. Several of the rescue agencies are members of the Greater Atlantic Region Stranding Network. Reasons for the seal strandings vary and sometimes remain a mystery. “We don’t know if it is the effects of toxins in the environment or activity like entanglement,” says Zagzebski. Sometimes, the threats come as a result of human interference. “People with the best of intentions pick up seal pups left alone on the beach while the mother is hunting. The mother returns and sees the people and she abandons the pup. Without intervention they won’t survive,” says Zagzebski.
The average cost of rehabilitating the 63 harbor, grey and harp seals the hospital has treated since 2004 ranges from $3,000 to $5,000 each. The NMLC has four full-time staff and its annual budget is approximately $400,000. Private donations and grants in addition to fundraising events make up 80 percent of the NMLC’s income. Federal grants provide the remaining funds.
The individual cost of rehabbing a turtle is the same as that of a seal—$3,000-$5,000. Since 2004, the NMLC has nursed 99 sea turtles back to health. Turtles tend to stay much longer than seals, with an average length of stay between three to nine months. “They are slow to get sick and slow to get better,” says Shaffer.
Like Onion Flake, turtles face a host of challenges if they are lucky enough to be found alive after stranding in what Sea Rogers Williams, the NMLC’s science director and associate veterinarian, calls “the natural turtle trap,” of Cape Cod. When temperatures turn cold the sea turtles want to go south. If they are in the bay, they will run into Cape Cod. If they cannot find their way out before winter, the sustained exposure to frigid water temperatures causes a condition known as cold stunning. When the water temperature is colder than the sea turtles’ optimal internal temperature, the animals become lethargic. Eventually, hypothermia sets in and they cannot eat or even swim.
After being tossed around in the waves for what can be weeks, many turtles arrive at the NMLC with cracked shells and abrasions. One turtle named Pirate was missing one of its flippers. Turtles arriving straight from a beach rescue may have heartbeats as low as one or two beats per minute.
A stranding network member agency, which for turtles is often the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, will transport the turtles to the hospital. Many are placed in an incubator upon arrival and each day the temperature is raised about five degrees warmer in order to bring them up to “turtle temp” of about 75 degrees.
Indispensable to the care of the injured and sick turtles and seals are the 60 active NMLC volunteers who commit a minimum of four hours a week to the hospital. “They are our backbone,” says Margot Madden, NMLC’s volunteer coordinator.
On a frigid day in February, nearly 20 of those volunteers met at Scusset Beach State Reservation at the east end of the Cape Cod Canal. They were there for the release of an eight-month-old harbor seal named Lemon Grass. She arrived in late August, 2015, and like Onion Flake, had an extended stay. “At this point in rehab, she is bored,” says volunteer Kerry Reynolds.
Reminiscing about their experiences with Lemon Grass, the volunteers fell silent as her crate was softly lowered to the sand. The young harbor seal took her time entering the surf. Resting her head on the bottom lip of the crate, she looked back and forth from the volunteers to the water. Eventually, she nudged the sand with her snout as if to make sure it was real. Finally, she shimmied down the gentle slope to the water. For about half an hour she stayed close to shore, swimming parallel to the beach before swimming out into the bay. The team watched until the winter sun reflecting off the seal’s head became difficult and then impossible to see from the beach. “They look so big inside the pen, but so small when they return to the ocean,” says Zagzebski.
HOW TO HELP
The National Marine Life Center hosts an annual Mermaid Ball fundraiser. This year’s event will take place on August 12 at the Rosebrook Event Center located at 50 Rosebrook Place in Wareham. Festivities begin at 6:30 p.m. and tickets can be purchased online.
If you find a stranded seal pup, seal or sea turtle on a local beach, call the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) marine mammal and sea turtle stranding and entanglement hotline: 866-755-NOAA (6622).