A baby seal rests in Old Orchard Beach in this 2016 file photo. LIZ GOTTHELF/Journal Tribune

OLD ORCHARD BEACH — On Friday, Old Orchard Beach summer reserve officers responded to a call around noon that a seal pup was on the beach in the Atlantic Avenue area.

There were reportedly about 200 people in the area of the beach, said OOB Police Captain David Hemingway. People were surrounding the animal and some were trying to push it into the water. The first instinct of the patrol officers was to move the seal away from the crowd and to do so, they put it in the back of a police UTV.

“This happened to be where there was a lot of people, it was causing a lot of attention,” Hemingway said.

Marine patrol was notified as was Marine Mammals of Maine after the seal was put in the back of the UTV. Representatives from Marine Mammals, which has staff and volunteers trained to deal with seals and other marine animals, moved the seal to a quieter part of the beach and monitored it.

Although the local responders’ intentions were good, the first-line of response should have been to contact Marine Mammals of Maine,  clear an area around the seal, and have a representative from the organization determine if the seal needed medical attention, and decide what, if any, other action was necessary.

Young harbor seals are pretty adorable, and when seen by themselves alone on the beach, the knee-jerk reaction by many is that they need rescuing.

However, in many cases they may be just resting, and if people want to help, the best action they can take is to keep at a distance and call Marine Mammals of Maine. The organization will dispatch a trained volunteer to do a health assessment, as they did Friday.

Harbor seal pups are typically born in May or June. A young pup seen on shore in late spring or early summer might be resting on shore while its mother is out foraging for food. If the pup is moved, it’s mother won’t be able to find it when she comes back to shore to nurse her pup.

Seals nurse for about three or four weeks, then are off learning to navigate and fend for themselves. A young seal on the beach in August might seem to some like a pup that’s been separated from its mother, but it likely had been independent for a while, said Lynda Doughty, executive director of Marine Mammals of Maine.

Seals are protected by Marine Mammal Protection Act, and it is illegal to approach a seal within 150 feet. While people may want to approach a seal on the beach, they need to keep their distance.

“I know it’s hard to watch. Everyone wants to help,” said Doughty.

Crowding around a seal can result in added stress to the animal, said Doughty. Also, beach goers who see a seal should resist the urge to pour water on it, said Doughty. Seals are semi-aquatic, spending some time on water and some time on land. It’s normal for them to go on shore to rest and dry, according to officials at Marine Mammals of Maine.

The ocean and the coast are the seal’s home, said Doughty.

“We don’t want to intervene if we don’t have to,” she said.

She noted a case  when earlier this summer a one-month-old harbor seal resting on the beach was dragged into the water by humans at three different beaches. Returning an exhausted seal that needs to rest back in the water could be detrimental to the animal, according to professionals at Marine Mammals of Maine.

In Old Orchard Beach, tens of thousands of people the beach and share the beach with wildlife including seals, plovers and seagulls. There is different protocol for different types of animals, summer patrol officers who work on the beach are seasonal, and seals are spotted on the beach some years a few times a summer, said Hemingway and OOB Police Chief Dana Kelley.

Noting the situation that occurred Friday, Hemingway said, “we plan to review with our people the proper procedure on initially isolating the seal from human contact and immediately contacting Marine Mammals of Maine and then if necessary Marine Patrol for a determination and response to these types of situations. We also plan to add this to part of our regular training for full-time and seasonal personnel as being a seasonal environment we have a large amount of staffing changes each year.”

Unfortunately, the seal found Friday was not well, said Doughty. After the seal was taken to a quieter area, it went back out into the ocean but did not go far out to sea, and came back to shore that night. The seal, which had a swollen flipper was taken to the Marine Mammals of Maine facility where it died the next morning.

Those who see a seal on the beach should call the Maine marine animal reporting phone line at 800-532-9551.

— Staff Writer Liz Gotthelf can be reached at 780-9015 or by email at [email protected]

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