Let sleeping seals lie

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WILDWOOD — Even during the winter, the city’s beaches are a popular spot for sunbathing. Those sunbathers just happen to be seals.
Bob Schoelkopf, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, said that this time of year is prime time for seals to be spotted along the beaches and back bays in New Jersey.
Harbor seals are common in the area, he said. And as the season moves on, harp seals and grey seals will also crop up.
Their presence on beaches doesn’t necessarily mean the seal is sick or lost, Schoelkopf said. In most instances, they are simply resting.

“Seals don’t want to be in freezing water 24-7,” Schoelkopf added.
He explained that seals use the water for transportation and food.
“In order to catch their food, they normally have to dive. When they have to dive frequently they use up a lot of the oxygen in their blood,” Schoelkopf said. “When that happens they want to rest, replenish their oxygen supply and dry off for a while.”
Schoelkopf said seals will head to beaches and back bays to rest and sun themselves.
“They don’t know if it’s a popular beach or a populated spot along the bay,” he said. “All they know is that it’s a nice spot to nap for awhile.”
However, convincing the public that they should give marine animals their space when they come ashore has been difficult, Schoelkopf said.
“The sight of an animal on the beach can be touching and people may think that they need to help by touching them or wrapping them up,” he said. “That isn’t the case.”
Schoelkopf is a founding member of the center and has been working with marine animals for 34 years. But he said that he still runs into people that don’t want to wait for members of the stranding center to arrive before they try to take matters in their owns hands.
The result, he said, can seriously injure the animal they are trying to save. Or get the would-be rescuer hurt, he added.  
Giving them food also isn’t helpful.
“I’ve seen everything from sushi to hotdogs being thrown at seals,” he said. “But they only eat live food.”
Schoelkopf said that although seals appear to be harmless, they have sharp teeth and claws and carry bacteria from the mucus in their saliva. A bite or scratch can carry viruses that can be transmitted to humans.
“All animals, injured or stressed, can be dangerous,” Schoelkopf said. “But even with all the warnings, I still see pictures of people posing with their children near a seal or hearing that their dog got close to it.
“A bit from a seal is enough to send any child to the hospital and any dog to the vet for a long time,” he added.
“Even if someone is a veterinarian or a police officer that doesn’t mean they are qualified to handle marine animals,” Schoelkopf said.
Additionally, he noted, in the United States it is illegal for anyone without a scientific permit to handle marine mammals.
“They are federally protected,” he said.
Last week, a male juvenile harbor seal came ashore to rest on the beach. But his arrival cause so much commotion on the beach, that he had to be moved to somewhere less populated, said Jay Pagel,  the center’s senior stranding technician.
Because the seal wasn’t hurt or injured, Pagel said that he was marked with a grease pencil so if was spotted somewhere else he could be indentified.
He was released in Brigantine, but a few days later the seal was found on a beach in Atlantic City, where crowds of people were a concern.
He was taken to Little Egg Harbor Township and released but came ashore near the bay at the end of Great Bay Boulevard on Jan. 22.
“He’s healthy,” Schoelkopf said. “The greatest threat he’s running into is people.”
Schoelkopf said with most of the beaches in New Jersey populated, there aren’t many places left for the seals to go where they wouldn’t run into people.
The way the public can help when they see a seal on the beach, is to stay at least two bus lengths from the animal and use smartphones or cameras to take a picture and email the center at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
Schoelkopf said he’s gotten reports of seals stuck on pilings, piers, pipes and inlets. But when the team from the Marine Mammal Stranding Center arrives, they normally encounter a healthy seal that was taking a nap.
“We only have four staff members to cover the whole state of New Jersey,” Schoelkopf said. “It will help us to get a picture first so we can try and determine if the seal needs to be picked up for rehabilitation or is just resting.”
If the seal looks to be in good health, the center will send down volunteers that have been trained to watch the seal and keep curious onlookers at a safe distance.  
“We didn’t want to have the cops called and take them off their job to babysit a seal,” Schoelkopf said. “And we don’t pick up seals simply for being on the beach.”
Once the animal is rested, they return to the water within a day, he said.
If the seal is sick or injured, Schoelkopf said, it is taken to the stranding center in Brigantine where the staff can treat any injures, work on rehabilitation and return the animal to the wild.
The center currently has an 88.9 percent release rate, according to Schoelkopf. Since the center opened in 1975, the center has handled 207 marine mammal stranding calls in the Wildwoods with 53 of those calls being live animals.
The seal that came ashore last week is one of eight that have been reported to the center this month. This month three seals have been moved from beaches in Wildwood, Avalon and Sea Isle because of crowds.

Lauren Suit can be emailed at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or you can comment on this story at shorenewstoday.com.

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