Seals are semi-aquatic animals, which means they come ashore regularly. Unlike marine mammals that only beach themselves when they are ill or injured, a seal is often content to pursue rest and warmth on land and then return to the water.
It can be difficult to tell when a seal is resting or unwell, especially since sick animals can present themselves as much healthier than they are to ward off predators that might see them as easy targets!
National Aquarium Animal Rescue, along with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and the Maryland DNR, asks that every seal sighting in Maryland be reported through our hotline (410-576-3880) for this reason: Our knowledgeable experts can tell whether a seal is going about its normal routine or unwell and in need of help. While we respond on-site to strandings in Maryland, we also provide care to seals that come from other states, as well.
Once a seal is spotted, the Maryland Coastal Bays Program's trained seal stewards are dispatched to oversee the animal and ensure that it is not bothered or harmed. Then, a National Aquarium volunteer first responder arrives at the scene to assess the animal's condition in consultation with Animal Rescue staff. These groups work together to determine if the animal should be brought to Baltimore to receive treatment at the Animal Care and Rescue Center. If the seal is in need of rehabilitation, a plan is devised to transport it to the ACRC.
The drive from Ocean City or Assateague Island—two of the most common stranding spots in Maryland—to the National Aquarium clocks in at three hours long, and once the seal arrives at the ACRC it immediately undergoes a full medical examination. With a better understanding of what's going on with their patient, our staff then draws up a recovery plan and sets it in motion.
Stabilization and rehydration are the first steps toward rehabilitation for all seals, followed by care for injuries and illness. When seals are well into their recovery, Animal Rescue staff and volunteers prepare them for their return to the ocean by engaging them in enrichment opportunities—this can look like anything from providing them with synthetic kelp to play with to feeding them ice-covered fish that must be dug out before they can be eaten.
Simulating the conditions of their natural environment while they are still in recovery allows us to prepare seals for a successful return to the ocean. On top of demonstrating their readiness through engagement in enrichment activities, seals must also pass medical and behavioral evaluations and weigh at least 50 pounds before they are able to return home. Bulking up provides an extra level of assurance that they'll be happy and healthy during their first few days back.
In the final step of rehabilitation, we seek approval from NOAA to return the seal to the ocean before we begin making plans for the big day. Upon release, National Aquarium staff and volunteers (and sometimes a crowd of cheering onlookers!) watch as the rejuvenated seal returns to the water. This marks the end of the seal rehabilitation process, and it's a joyous occasion—but don't take our word for it, see it for yourself!
2019 was a banner year for seal rehabilitation at the National Aquarium! Check out our end-of-year round up for last year's highlights from seal rescue season—including our first ever double-seal release!