Jacqueline Bevier typically walks Portland’s Back Cove Trail a couple of times a week, but the 26-year-old South Portland resident had never seen a baby harbor seal beached along the shore – until Tuesday

“Oh, poor baby,” Bevier said, standing with a small crowd of onlookers near the Franklin Street exit of Interstate 295, at the edge of downtown Portland.

The young seal was first spotted Tuesday morning, well over an hour before a call to the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland was referred to Marine Mammals of Maine, a nonprofit in Boothbay that sent a volunteer to observe the seal and protect it from the public.

Bill Barthelman, a volunteer with the group, said seals usually come onto shores and beaches just because they are tired and need rest. They can spend long periods on dry land, needing to enter the water only to find food, he said.

Unless an animal has visible signs of injury, volunteers simply observe it. “It’s mainly to keep people away, and dogs,” said Barthelman, a 71-year-old retiree.

While it’s not unusual for seals to beach themselves in Maine, such an occurrence along a popular trail in Maine’s largest city is bound to draw attention. Dozens of runners, walkers and bikers watched the seal pup, expressing concern for its well-being.

“I feel like there’s something wrong with him, or maybe he’s just pooped,” said Callan Kilroy, 27, who took a break from training for Saturday’s Beach-to-Beacon road race to check out the seal. “They’re so cute. They’re adorable.”

Observers initially reported that the seal pup appeared to be favoring its left flipper. For at least an hour as the tide receded, the pup lay on its right side in the sand, appearing to sleep peacefully as vehicles roared by on the interstate. The pup occasionally dipped its nose into the sand, rested its head on a nearby rock and yawned, showing off rows of sharp teeth.

At one point, the pup hoisted itself on both front flippers and inched up on the shore without any apparent pain.

“He seems to be in good shape. He’s not emaciated,” Barthelman said, estimating the seal was 3 months old and fully weaned from its mother. “Those are good signs.”

A few minutes later, however, the seal began to cough and gag in rapid succession. At that point, Barthelman decided it had to be moved and examined.

“There are too many people here,” he said as the crowd of onlookers grew.

In the past, the seal pup would have been taken to the University of New England’s Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center in Biddeford. But the center, which had helped more than 1,000 stranded or injured marine animals since 2001, closed this summer because of budget cuts, leaving the state without a full-fledged marine rehab center.

The nearest rehab centers are in Massachusetts and Connecticut, Barthelman said.

“It’s frustrating, because there is just no place to take (the animals),” he said.

Shortly before 3 p.m., Barthelman returned to the shore with a large plastic animal carrier. After putting on a pair of blue rubber gloves, he sneaked up on the seal from behind and wrapped it up in a towel before putting it in the cage.

He, and Liz Lord, an animal care technician for the refuge league, and a bystander carried the cage and the roughly 12-pound pup to a Hummer that was parked on Marginal Way.

Barthelman said the seal would be delivered to Lynda Doughty, executive director of Marine Mammals of Maine, who has a small facility in Maine’s midcoast and is licensed to provide medical treatment and administer tests on seals. If the pup needs more care or rehab, it will have to leave the state.

“He’s adorable,” said Laurel Robertson, 57, of Freeport. “We hope he – or she – is OK.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings