It was late last summer when a very thin and sick seal pup struggled onshore in West Seattle, Washington. For most seal pups this might have been her last days - sick and slowly starving on the beach. While joggers ran by, school buses unloaded their students, and dogs ran off-leash nearby.
But this pup, Sandy, was lucky. And Sandy's story is a celebration of volunteer activism, wildlife rehab, and committed government conservation and education.
Sandy hauled out on a busy, urban beach that for years has been patrolled by an active citizen naturalist volunteer group, Seal Sitters Marina Mammal Stranding Network. Instead of just walking by -- iPods blasting in their ears, oblivious to the dramas of life-and-death on these shores we share with marine life -- Seal Sitters are trained by N.O.A.A. to walk the beaches with binoculars in hand. When Seal Sitters see a pup, they immediately report the sighting to the Seal Sitters hotline.
N.O.O.A.'s Marine Mammal Stranding Expert, Kristin Wilkinson, has trained Seal Sitters to recognize any signs of distress in seals, such as labored breathing, discharge, human-caused wounds, and serious weight loss. Although the seal population in Washington State is healthy, 50 percent of seals don't survive their first year.
Seals belong onshore as much as humans. It is normal for seals to haul out on our beaches. Here they can mate, give birth, nurse their young, rest, and regulate their body temperature. But onshore, seals face many dangers. Dogs off leash and humans are their main predators. In the sea, marine mammals struggle with pollution, overfishing, and scapegoating for dwindling fish stocks. Just this month, 7 sea lions and a seal were mysteriously shot on Pacific Northwest beaches.
When Sandy crawled onshore in West Seattle last summer, a neighbor called the Seal Sitters hotline to report a pup on the beach. Immediately, Seal Sitters' first responder took health assessment photos and emailed them to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife marine mammal biologist, Dyanna Lambourn, for a consult.
Seal Sitters surrounded the pup with yellow "Protected Marine Mammal" tape. Late into the evening, volunteers watched over Sandy, whose ribs and hipbones jutted out and whose fur sagged in wrinkled folds. While sometimes a pup will rest onshore for 12 hours or more, it appeared that there was no attending mom for this young pup. An intervention would be necessary if she was still on the beach the next morning. Whenever people strolled by, Seal Sitters shared their binoculars and educated beach goers about marine mammal conservation.
The next morning, after 24 hours onshore, Sandy had not returned to the water to forage. Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network, as an authorized agent of NOAA, determined she was too young and too weak to survive on her own. A trained stranding volunteer carefully took Sandy off the beach and up to PAWS Wildlife Hospital. There, she was quickly assessed as dehydrated with many cuts and abscesses on her fore flippers. Sandy's weight was a woeful 7.1 kg (15.6 lbs.); a healthy pup weighs 21-23 kg. Many pups do not survive the trauma of travel and ER treatment. But Sandy not only survived. She thrived.
Under PAWS care, Sandy spent five months nourished by medical attention and plenty of fish. Sandy had her ups and downs in rehab and was in the wildlife hospital longer than most pups. Washington State has no large-capacity marine mammal rehab facility like California and New England. And PAWS can only take a few seals each year. But by late January, Sandy was swimming around in her small pool, diving for fish. This once emaciated and sickly seal pup was robust and healthy. She was ready to return to the sea.
On January 19, 2012, it was a New Year and a new life for Sandy. Seal Sitter volunteers joined N.O.A.A., PAWS, and WDFW biologists in fitting Sandy with a temporary satellite transmitter that signals her location and travels. The satellite transmitter is held on by glue and will slough off when Sandy molts her fur. Such research is vital to helping us study the health of our Salish Sea ecosystem and marine mammals. Sandy was released on a remote beach far from her native West Seattle shore.
For the past several weeks, her satellite device has been reporting Sandy's explorations. She's spending time with other seals in rookeries or well-known seal communities. N.O.A.A. is working with The SeaDoc Society, who sends out email bulletins to anyone who signs up to track her daily journeys.
And now, Sandy is coming home. Her satellite transmitter has placed her very near West Seattle. Seal Sitters are out even in very blustery weather with their binoculars, hoping for a glimpse of this pup, who is a living symbol of how people and animals can co-exist. How we can learn from one another about this sea we share, this ocean ecosystem that feeds and nourishes us all.
In celebration of Sandy's homecoming, here's a short video link to her story -- from her first haul out last summer to her triumphant release.
Follow Sandy's travels on The Sea Doc Society tracking page.
You can see video and photos of Sandy's story at the Seal Sitters BlubberBlog link. All photos Robin Lindsey: http://www.blubberblog.org/files/tag-sandy.html
For more information on Seal Sitters: http://www.sealsitters.org
Brenda Peterson is a National Geographic author. Her sixteen books include the recent memoir, I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, which was named as a "Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Book of 2010" by The Christian Science Monitor. Her new book is Leopard and Silkie: One Boy's Quest to Save Seal Pups.