On February 26, 2022, Aquarium staff welcomed a maternally dependent grey seal pup to our Animal Care and Rescue Center. The pup—who has been nicknamed Louis Armstrong in keeping with our 2021-22 rescue season naming theme of musicians and instruments—was rescued from Assateague Island National Seashore where he was found stranded and dehydrated with wounds to his face and left flipper. Weighing in at just 35 pounds, our team was quickly able to surmise that Louis was born sometime in January and would still be dependent on his mother for nourishment. However, after becoming separated from his mother at such a young age, he would be vulnerable to predators and susceptible to malnutrition on his own.
Since arriving at the Animal Care and Rescue Center last month, Louis has been successfully treated with antibiotics to address infections resulting from the wounds to his face and flipper. Our Animal Rescue and Animal Health teams are now working with Louis to master independent swimming and foraging for food—skills he will need to survive on his own once he's released. Louis is a vocal and spirited pup who has no reservations about making noise to let staff know when it's time for a meal, and his Aquarium caregivers describe him as having a big personality. He is slowly warming up to the idea of getting comfortable in his splash pools and seeking out fish. Since a seal his age would still rely on its mother for nutrition, it is critical that Louis begin to understand how to find and eat fish on his own while in the care of our team.
Louis is the third maternally dependent seal admitted to the Animal Care and Rescue Center over the past several years, a trend that our team is looking at carefully. The ongoing presence of young, maternally dependent grey seals in particular indicates the possible establishment of a grey seal colony—known as a rookery—in mid-Atlantic waters. To understand how and why a colony would spontaneously set up camp in an area where they have not always been prevalent, it helps to understand the historical relationship between seal populations along the East Coast and the humans attempting to exert control on this portion of the Atlantic Ocean.
For about 70 years until the 1960s, grey seals were eradicated from the New England area in an attempt to bolster New England's maritime industries. Seen as a nuisance, seals actually carried a bounty; seafaring mariners able to prove they had encountered and killed a seal were paid for their efforts. As a result of this practice, seals were driven from the New England area, heading northward to the area around Sable Island off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where a well-established colony exists to this day.
In the interceding years, both nature and nurture have aligned to encourage the recovery of seal populations in our region. First, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MPAA), passed in 1972, made the hunting of seals illegal and punishable by substantial fines or possible jail time. The protections offered by the MMPA allowed seals to again move freely along the Eastern Seaboard.
By their nature, seals are not particularly social animals. Grey seals will rely on the security of a rookery population during breeding season but are otherwise independent. When established rookeries become crowded, grey seals natural independence will drive them to venture further away. Over time, grey seal populations that once fled to Canada have naturally made their way further south, establishing breeding colonies along the way.
While our Animal Rescue staff cannot say with any certainty where individual rescued seals are from, the establishment of a local rookery means we will likely see more seals like Louis Armstrong in our region. As for Louis himself, his prognosis is excellent, but our partners at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who help determine when a seal is ready for release will look for him to weigh about 50 pounds before he leaves our care. That means he has a lot of eating to do, so our rescue team will be busy doling out fishes as Louis noisily trumpets his approval.
Seal rescue season in the mid-Atlantic typically lasts from the early winter through May. Remember, should you encounter a seal on the beach, it may not be sick, only resting. If you do see a seal, do not touch or approach it, and keep a distance of 150 feet—about the length of three school buses. Please note your location and time of day and immediately contact the National Aquarium's Stranded Animal Hotline at 410-576-3880. The National Aquarium Animal Rescue team released its 300th successfully rehabilitated rescued animal in 2021.