Seal season in Ocean City is typically late December – May, so don’t be surprised if you’re walking along the beach and spot a seal chilling in the sand.
You’ll likely see that the seal is surrounded by a U-shape of orange traffic cones and seal stewards, who volunteer with Maryland Coastal Bays to inform the public about the marine mammals and keep them from getting to close. In 2012, Maryland Coastal Bays partnered with the National Aquarium in Baltimore through a federal grant to promote the responsible viewing of marine life. Since then, they’ve been holding seal steward training sessions annually and recruiting area locals to volunteer when a seal decides to lay out on Ocean City’s beach.
About the seals
There are four types of seals that you could find out on our beach: most common are the harbor seal and the grey seal, and you might occasionally see a harp seal or a hooded seal, too.
Seals prefer cold water, which is why they start appearing at more southern beaches in the wintertime, and they’ve also been traveling south in larger numbers in recent years due to environmental changes and their growing population. In Ocean City, the first seal sightings tends to occur between Christmas and New Year’s.
While the ocean is the seal’s natural habitat, they “haul out,” or lay out on the land, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s to rest, to soak up the sun and dry off for a bit, to give birth, or to molt, which they do once a year. Other times, they might haul out because their health is at risk due to human interaction, wounds or injuries or natural illness.
What to do when you see one
All marine mammals, including seals, are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which means you must keep a distance of at least 150 ft (and, obviously, not harass them, even if from a distance).
Usually, when you see a seal on Ocean City’s beach, Maryland Coastal Bays and their seal stewards will already be monitoring the area and asking the public to keep a safe distance away. Neon orange traffic cones will be set up in a U-shape with the open end facing the ocean.
“You want the animal to have an unimpeded exit back into the water,” said Jennifer Dittmar, Director of Animal Rescue at the National Aquarium.
However, if you see a lone seal on the beach, you can call the Maryland Coastal Bays Program at 410-213-2297 (you can also report a sighting online). They’ll send people over to ensure that the seal is left comfortable and undisturbed during its haul out, and if it appears sick or injured, they’ll alert first responders from the National Aquarium.
Seeing a seal on land is exciting, especially if it’s your first time. Take all the pictures in the world for your Facebook and Instagram (as long as you take them from behind the orange cones!), but don’t share the location while the seal is still there. Having hundreds of people crowding around a seal makes it harder for stewards and Coastal Bays employees to ensure that the animal isn’t bombarded.
“We had one year when there was a convention going on, and we had over 400 people [show up],” said Sandi Smith, Development and Marketing Coordinator at Maryland Coastal Bays. “It snowballs if you share the location.”
There are a lot of reasons why you shouldn’t get too close to a hauled-out seal, and in all the excitement of seeing one for the first time, a lot of people can forget that seals on the beach are marine mammals outside of their natural environment. Every seal reacts differently to a human interaction–some growl, some try to bite, others freeze or run away–but the point is, they’re not really supposed to be interacting with humans at all.
They also can carry a number of zoonotic diseases ranging from influenza to rabies and even a strain of herpes. You don’t want to get too close, and you don’t want your dog to get too close either, so be sure to keep pets on a leash (they should always be leashed on the beach, anyway).
Seals are amazing, adorable creatures–they’re basically the puppies of the sea (baby seals are called pups, after all). We just need to be sure to appreciate them from a safe distance away and to practice common courtesy toward them, as we should toward all animals and humans on the beach.