Date: Saturday, January 7
Location: Olympic Peninsula, WA state
Weather: high winds, heavy rain
What began as a sea otter observation excursion turned into a seal rescue operation after Brittany Blades, OCAq’s Curator of Marine Mammals, heard distressed cries nearby.
Blades peered through the fog and pelting rain, trying to find the source of the high pitched squeals. She spun around and was shocked to see a seal just up the beach behind her, its sleek, dark form clambering atop a pile of driftwood. Binoculars revealed key details: this was a young northern fur seal, and there was material wrapped tightly around its neck.
Fortunately, Blades wasn’t alone. She was in the company of OCAq Senior Mammalogist Ashley Griffin-Stence, Seattle Aquarium’s Senior Conservation Research Manager Dr. Shawn Larson, and Seattle Research Scientist for Clean Seas Veronica Padula.
“In my 22 years of doing this work, I’ve never seen a northern fur seal pup on the beach,” Dr. Larson said.
“You could tell that something was wrong with it. It looked like it was struggling somehow,” Padula added.
The team followed standard protocol, immediately calling the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Typically, when a marine mammal is reported stranded or injured, a Network partner responds to assess the animal and determine the best course of action.
But this wasn’t a typical case: they were in a remote location on the Olympic Peninsula, and it would have taken hours for responders to arrive; and this wasn’t a group of casual beachgoers–this was a team of trained marine mammal experts.
After receiving authorization from NOAA officials to assist the fur seal, Blades used a sweatshirt and thick gloves to restrain the animal’s head, while Griffin-Stence restrained its body. The seal was between
20-30lbs and feisty, attempting to bite before, during, and after the restraint–a good sign of its health. Dr. Larson unpacked the scissors from her first aid kit and carefully cut the material from the seal’s neck.
The culprit was an elastic piece of cloth, similar to the wrist opening of a garden glove. Once the seal was released, it quickly walked towards the water, pausing once to observe the team as they captured a celebratory group selfie.
Northern fur seals are found along the north Pacific Ocean. This species spends a majority of its time at sea, typically coming to land just for the summer breeding season, or if they are injured or ill. The northern fur seal is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“It was that Northern fur seal’s lucky day,” said Blades, “to strand behind four marine mammal biologists specifically experienced with rescuing and rehabilitating entangled fur seals.” Blades was involved in another northern fur seal rescue, rehabilitation, and release in 2018, and just last year both she and Griffin-Stence assisted in the rescue and stabilization of an entangled Guadalupe fur seal.
The team had assembled earlier that morning at Ozette Ranger Station on the Olympic Peninsula, then hiked three miles in to their destination of Sandpoint, a steep rock providing wide, clear views of the water below. From their vantage point atop the rock, the team observed a pregnant female sea otter who was foraging for herself and her pup, and a second sea otter with a very young pup. Blades had coordinated the trip with Dr. Larson for this very purpose; in working alongside Dr. Larson, OCAq mammalogists are learning how to conduct sea otter foraging data surveys. The collected data supplements a larger database, allowing researchers to compare Washington to California and Alaska sea otter populations. It provides information on the status of a population by documenting the amount and type of food obtained per foraging dive. It takes approximately twelve sea otter survey excursions to become a fully trained scope operator.
Sea otters were extirpated from Oregon in the early 1900s, at the height of the fur trade. While there are no established sea otter populations on Oregon’s coast, the information gathered is useful in that it provides a snapshot of what sea otters would be foraging in Oregon. In recent years, government agencies and nonprofit organizations have conducted feasibility studies surrounding the reintroduction of sea otters to Oregon waters; should reintroduction efforts come to fruition in the coming years, there will be a need for trained scope operators to monitor sea otter behavior and population growth on Oregon’s coast. These survey excursions also result in more trained surveyors for the Washington coast, and if there is a sea otter sighting in Oregon, Blades and Griffin-Stence could respond and collect foraging data of that individual.
If you come upon an injured, stranded, or dead marine mammal, report it to the Oregon State Police Tipline at 800-452-7888 or the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 1-866-767-6114.