If you are walking along the shore and find a baby harbor seal on its own, what should you do? Your first thought may be that the seal is in distress because it is out of water and alone. You may hear it cry or vocalize. The pup may approach and snuggle up to you and perhaps even begin suckling on your shoe! A natural response is to assist the animal. However, this is the life of a harbor seal pup - being left high and dry for periods of time with no mom in sight!

Here are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, seals are semi-aquatic, meaning that while they spend a good deal of their life in the ocean, it is necessary and indeed critical to spend portions of time hauled out of water - on beaches, docks, even discarded tires, or perched on uncomfortable-looking rocks. Secondly, harbor seal mothers often leave their pups for hours at a time in order to forage for food. They may even leave their pup on the same beach day after day while periodically coming back to feed it. Most of the time, the seal pup is healthy and simply awaiting its mother’s return. And don’t be distressed if you hear the pup “crying.” These vocalizations are important for re-uniting mom and pup as the mom identifies her pup by its plaintive hooting calls. Thirdly, as hard as it may be, it is best to leave the pup alone, for the mother will not return if she detects the presence of humans. Further, your close presence can significantly stress the animal, potentially causing internal bodily harm.

From May to early July, there are cases in which a number of harbor seal pups are truly abandoned by their mothers. The mother may be ill and unable to care for her pup, the mom dies, or perhaps the pair gets separated. In these cases, the pup will indeed need human assistance, given appropriately by a trained and authorized individual.

If you find a seal pup:

  • Do not touch it for your own safety as well as the animal’s well-being. Seals can carry infectious diseases that can be transmitted to humans and also to pets making them ill.
  • Do not remove it from the beach. The pup may be resting and awaiting its mom’s return.
  • Do not put the pup back in the ocean. They are babies; they need rest like all infants.
  • Do not pour seawater on the pup. They do not need to be wet.
  • And while it may be sorely tempting, do not try to feed the animal for, at this age, pups are still nursing. Mom’s milk is better and indeed, is different in nature from the milk we drink, so refrain from playing surrogate mother! Keep in mind, it is illegal to touch, harass, or harm any marine mammal in the United States.

If you feel it needs assistance, or if you simply want more information, call Allied Whale, the marine mammal research lab of the College of the Atlantic at: 288-5644 (during regular business hours) or the stranding cell-phone at: 266-1326 (during the weekends and holidays).

You can also call the Maine Marine Mammal Reporting Hotline: 1-800-532-9551. Allied Whale, COA is a member of the Greater Atlantic Regional Stranding Network (formerly known as the Northeast Regional Stranding Network) and is authorized by the National Marine Fisheries Service to respond to all marine mammal strandings. All marine mammals are federally protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.