Seal mom’s sad vigil draws attention on Whidbey

A female harbor seal overcome by grief was seen guarding her pup’s body for days in Langley.

This year’s seal pupping season ended in tragedy for a female harbor seal which, overcome by grief, was seen guarding her pup’s body for days by the docks at Langley’s marina.

News of the wildlife drama quickly spread around Whidbey Island as marine mammal experts responded to the unfortunate situation.

Harbor Master Kathy Myers said the pup was delivered stillborn Friday, July 14. During pupping season, which happens June through August, this is a normal occurrence.

Susan Berta, executive director of Orca Network, explained that about half of seals don’t make it through their first year of life.

“Some are born too soon and just don’t have a chance from the beginning,” Berta wrote. “Though this is sad, it is nature’s way of keeping the population stable.”

The Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network is a partnership between Orca Network, NOAA Fisheries, wildlife veterinarians and biologists. Together, they take care of dead and live marine mammals found stranded on the shores of Island, Skagit and north Snohomish counties.

According to Garry Heinrich, the network’s stranding response coordinator, an initial attempt to remove the carcass failed due to the mother’s protective response. Since there was no hazard to people’s safety, the stranding network advised marina staff to “just wait and see,” as Heinrich said.

“There’s no point in putting the mother through that stress,” he said.

According to Myers and Heinrich, the mother’s mourning seemingly ended Monday morning, when she finally left her pup unguarded. After hours of waiting, the Stranding Network and the Port of South Whidbey decided it was time to dispose of the body, which was dropped in deep waters.

That same day, another harbor seal gave birth to a live pup, as Myers announced, amounting to two pups confirmed in the area.

Though this is wholesome news, NOAA encourages people to refrain from approaching the pups, maintaining a distance of at least 100 yards from them and keeping dogs on a leash. According to NOAA, seal pups use log booms, docks and shores to rest and regulate their body temperature. Mothers might not return if they see them interacting with humans.

Like all marine mammals, harbor seals are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits harassment of these creatures.

To report a seal pup that was left hurt, dead or unattended for more than 24 hours in Island County, people can contact the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 1-866-ORCANET (866-672-2638), or 949-233-2822.