NOAA Fisheries is responsible for the management and protection of all marine mammals found along the nation’s coasts and delegates these responsibilities, which include responding to marine mammal emergencies and strandings, to a network of marine mammal organizations nationwide. As an active member of the Greater Atlantic Regional Stranding Network (originally known as the Northeast Regional Stranding Network) and the Maine Strandings Collaborative, Allied Whale is obligated to aid any stranded marine mammal as quickly and efficiently as possible, while protecting the public from any potential dangers.
Our response area covers approximately 2,600 miles of indented coastline and includes the myriad of islands in between, so team members must be ready to travel several hours to respond to a stranded animal.
The types of strandings to which Allied Whale typically responds includes the harbor seal pups in spring and summer time and harp and hooded seals—collectively known as the “ice seals”—during the winter months. Harp and hooded seals are “pagophilic” meaning ice-loving as they inhabit pack ice a good part of the year and produce their young on the pack ice off the Labrador Front and the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada. Historically, the range of the ice seals extended from the Arctic in summer south to Newfoundland in winter. However, since the early 1990s, these species have extended their range inching south to New England and even beyond with individuals seen in some of the southern states. Today harp and hooded seals are now commonly seen in Maine from December to April. The fourth type of seal species found here are the grey seals, responding to adults and juveniles in the summer, and the pups in winter—as pupping time occurs between December and February.
We are fortunate to work with an extensive network of trained volunteers along the coast who are able to assist us in assessing the health of reported animals, and retrieve animals who are ill or in dangerous situations. Further, we work with other member of the Greater Atlantic Regional Stranding Network and within Maine, the Maine Strandings Collaborative to assist each other to assess and if needed, to collect these animals in a timely manner and transporting them to a rehabilitation (rehab) facility. With the closure of the only rehab facility in Maine, the Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center (MARC) at the University of New England in Biddeford in 2014, animals destined for rehab are currently transported out of state to either the National Marine Life Center in Buzzard’s Bay, MA., or the Mystic Aquarium, Mystic, CT. As well, we work closely with our colleagues of the Marine Mammals of Maine who attend to response and rescue in southern Maine and have a new facility in Harpswell allowing for temporary holding before transporting animals to a rehab facility.
Seal Species in the Gulf of Maine
Grey seals are common around in the Gulf of Maine and beyond. They can be found a little more offshore, often in the company of harbor seals in summer. However, they are larger in size compared to harbor seals. The pups are born between December and February so we often have to respond to these youngsters in winter like this female grey seal pup (below) found in the (closed) parking area of Thompson Island in Acadia National Park in April 2014
Harp seals are an Arctic visitors who typically range from the Arctic south to Newfoundland and Labrador. In the past decade, they have increased their range further south to the US Eastern seaboard. While once more of a rarity here, they are now commonplace in the Gulf of Maine. They are often sighted in winter sunning themselves on snow or an ice pan. Called “harp” seals for the distinctive lyre harp shape on the backs of adults, these seals are known as “whitecoats” when born for the white lanugo or birthcoat which is shed in the first couple of weeks of life. The age class of harp seal we tend to see are the juveniles, who are around 12-14 months old. These are known as “beaters” for the erratic way they swim at that age. The photo below shows a harp seal “beater” enjoying a nice ice pan in Bar Harbor, 2004.
Hooded seals are quite the ocean wanderer! Like the harp seal it is an Arctic seal being comfortably at home on ice pans. This robust seal has a broad head and pretty blue grey pelage (fur coat) dorsally with sharp white demarcation underneath. It is born with this coloration and are known as “Bluebacks.” They lose this pelage after 12-14 months emerging with a spotted coat - quite a change from their birth coat! The hooded seal has the distinction of having the shortest nursing period of any mammal—approximately 4 days! Below is a photo of a ‘blueback” which is the typical age class we tend to see down in the Gulf of Maine although we have had a few adults as well.
This is the most common seal species seen along Maine’s shores. They are often seen in colonies along rocky islands and outcroppings. Harbor seals are born in spring in our region especially during the month of May which along with the summer months comprises our busiest season. The tiny pups are often left by their mothers to go off and forage and are therefore often discovered and reported to us by concerned citizens. For every report, and if accessible (some are reported on remote and often inaccessible islands) a stranding team will visit the site and assess the pup. Often the pup is just resting and waiting for Mom and is not really a distressed seal. We will however monitor the pup and will collect the pup and transport to a rehabilitation facility if the seal has been truly abandoned. Below is a photo of a pre-mature harbor seal pup still sporting the birth coat known as the “lanugo” coat. They typically shed these in utero. The second photo below it shows a pair of full-term pups together.
Most reports of stranded cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) involve dead animals although we will get a few live stranded small cetaceans such as harbor porpoise and species of dolphin including Atlantic White-Sided Dolphins and Common Dolphins. In the case of a large, dead whale Allied Whale either travels to the animal or will tow it in to a suitable location and perform the necropsy on the beach. During the necropsy, we collect all Level A data and tissue samples which might help determine the cause of death or provide valuable information for a collaborating scientist’s research. Smaller cetaceans such as porpoises or dolphins are usually collected and transported back to the College of the Atlantic. Often we will collect the skeletons from our necropsies, compost them to clean off the soft tissue and later articulate them for educational displays.