By Erin Delmore
This doesn’t look like much of a day at the beach unless you’re this little guy: a gray seal making his way back home.
The seal we just released at the north end of Brigantine Beach is just over 50 pounds. That’s about the size of a medium dog. As you can see over the course of just a couple of minutes, he made his way from the truck, past the sand and safely into the water.
That’s all thanks to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, a nonprofit based just outside Atlantic City.
“We handle the entire coast of New Jersey, 1,800 miles of coastline. Our job is to recover sick, or injured or dead marine mammals and sea turtles,” said Marine Mammal Stranding Center Founding Director Bob Schoelkopf.
The center is housing around a dozen seals and it’s almost at capacity. That’s because seals come ashore in New Jersey in April and May. As the weather gets warmer, they follow the mackerel and herring up north, even as far as Maine. But some of them get separated from the pack.
“The downside for the gray seal pups is that they have never learned to eat. The mother nurses them for 10 days and then she leaves. She never sees them again so that pup has to learn to get in the water and recognize something to eat. In some cases some of these seals will eat rocks. One seal we just released last Monday tried to eat a plastic water bottle,” Schoelkopf said.
But trial and error takes its toll. One seal had a rear flipper amputated. This seal’s been cut and this one is under a month old — he still has his baby coat.
“The tanks appear small but that’s by nature. We want them confined and not swimming and using energy up. So when they first come in they just rest and sleep, they eat and sleep, and that’s perfect for that. Then when they get stronger they go in the exercise pool, and that’s usually two weeks before they’re released back out in the wild,” said Schoelkopf.
The center houses an intensive care unit, an exercise pool and a military-style tent for the animals. An average length of stay is six to eight weeks. In the visitors’ center guests can watch a live video feed. The nonprofit is averaging three to five calls a day. In the past, they’ve even taken in stranded animals from outside New Jersey, down the East Coast.
“Seals don’t spend their entire life in water,” Schoelkopf said. “They feed in water, they swim to get from one place to the other, but when they’re not eating they haul out and want to dry off and warm up like we do. When you go for a swim in the ocean you come out and lay on your blanket for awhile and warm up. That’s all they’re trying to do.”
While seals are completely adorable, it’s important to remember they are wild animals. So whatever you do, if you see one, don’t pet it. The staff here says they’ll bite. Just give them a call instead. They’ll find a way to get the seal to safety.