Winter visitors to Maryland

Published February 17, 2011

While humans may not appreciate the benefit of a cold, brisk day outside (much like it has been in Maryland lately), there are some animals that certainly enjoy the cold weather in Maryland… seals!

Every winter we receive questions from Marylanders about groups of seals spotted along the coast for extended periods of time, wondering if this is a common occurrence or something officials should be monitoring. We're very glad you asked, and happy to share more information about seals.

Seals are seasonal visitors to Maryland during the winter months, and will even travel as far south as North Carolina. They prefer a cold-water environment and often travel south from subarctic areas in the winter months.

These mammals are semi-aquatic, which means they like to spend part of the time in the water, and part of the time on land. They will typically spend multiple days swimming south, only to haul out on beaches, rocks or docks to rest for 24 hours or more. Seals will also haul out on exceptionally stormy or sunny days – this gives them a chance to wait out the stormy seas or soak up some warm sun, depending on the weather.

If you’re lucky enough to see a seal on the beach in Maryland, it’s best to give the animal a lot of space – at least 100 feet, or about the length of six standard cars – and stay downwind of the animal if possible. Disturbing seals by making them change locations or flee back into the water is against the law, as they are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Aside from being illegal to approach them, it is in your best interest to keep your distance! Even though they look very cute and innocent, we must remember that they are wild animals. Take a look at the teeth on this furry guy:

So how do you know if a seal is just resting or possibly stranded? A healthy, resting seal will typically be resting in a "banana position," on its side with its head or rear flippers in the air, like this:

A seal that is entangled in marine debris or has physical wounds and may be in need of medical attention will often be resting flat on its stomach. If you see a seal that may be in need of medical attention, please call the National Aquarium’s Stranding Hotline at 410-373-0083, or Natural Resources Police at 1-800-628-9944.

By all means, enjoy watching the seals and take plenty of pictures, but please do not disturb them – they have had a long commute from the north!

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