Seal pups on Seattle's shore attracting attention

SEATTLE (AP) - October 13, 2011

It's been a busy few weeks for the Seal Sitters, a local nonprofit group of trained volunteers. Some days, the group receives 20 calls from residents reporting pups on open beaches, rocks - even a boat ramp - in the city's West Seattle neighborhood.

The volunteers respond by setting up a tape perimeter to prevent bystanders from disturbing the animals. They take shifts watching over Oona, Gypsy, Peaches and others, and educating the public about them.

The Seal Sitters has counted 37 pups in the neighborhood so far this season, compared with 33 from August to December last year. The latest was a white pup with brown speckles dubbed Sly.

On Wednesday morning, the pup rested on seaweed-covered rocks, protected behind perimeter tape set up by volunteers. It snoozed lazily on one side, raising its whiskered face briefly at the occasional sound of a passing train or a car door slamming in a nearby parking lot.

"To see wildlife right in your front yard is incredible," said Jerry Skowronek, who brought his camera down that morning to take a look from a distance. "I didn't know we had this kind of wildlife here."

Volunteer Robin Lindsey, a professional photographer, was up early Wednesday to set up signs and yellow tape around Sly, which had hauled out on rocks not far from where it had appeared Tuesday. Signs warn bystanders not to disturb the animals. It's illegal to harass, touch or move a marine mammal.

Dyanna Lambourn, a marine mammal biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the high number of pups may be the result of more people looking for and reporting them.

"There may be more eyes on the water," she said. "Obviously, the word has gotten out, and there are people responding."

There's a healthy population of seals in Puget Sound and a good number of pups, Lambourn said. Urban settings like West Seattle, with lots of pilings, are also ideal for pups to find small bait fish, she said.

The pupping season in south Puget Sound is from late June to September. By mid-September, most seal pups have been weaned and are moving out to forage for food. Individual pups come ashore around this time and tend to rest close to where they find food so they won't have to expend too much energy, Lambourn said.

The pups are vulnerable and need rest when they're learning to fish on their own. Among the biggest dangers to seals in urban settings are unleashed dogs that can rush a pup and attack or scare it back into the water, or well-meaning people who think the pups need to be fed.

"Every year we have someone who decides they want to pet a pup," Lindsey said.

Only 50 percent of pups survive their first year, the group says.

"More eyes on the beach mean maybe we can help reverse the mortality rate. The higher the animals in the sound, the healthier the sound," said Brenda Peterson, who founded the Seal Sitters group, which is part of NOAA's Northwest Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

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