When Kennebunk residents spotted a baby seal lying exhausted on a beach in early February, they called the only people in the area who could help.
Marine Mammals of Maine, a small nonprofit organization, responds to marine strandings from Kittery to Rockland, one of the busiest seal stranding areas on the East Coast.
“They’re not always in trouble,” said Lynda Doughty, founding executive director of Marine Mammals of Maine. “Sometimes seals haul out [of the water] to rest and regain their energy. That’s why we investigate to see if the animal really needs help.”
It didn’t take much observation to see that the young grey seal in Kennebunk was struggling to survive. Just 5 or 6 weeks old, the pup measured about 3 feet long from his nose to the tips of his back flippers. He was noticeably underweight, weak and having trouble breathing.
With help from the Kennebunk Police Department, Marine Mammals of Maine carefully approached the seal so as not to spook him back into the water. They then scooped him up in a towel, placed him in a large animal carrier and transported him to their triage center in Harpswell.
“We started around-the-clock care to support him,” Doughty said.
As the sixth animal the organization has responded to this year, the pup was assigned the name MME20-006Hg, or “006” for short. He was the first pup rescued for rehabilitation in 2020, and if past years are any indication, many more are to come.
Why seals are stranded
Maine is home to gray seals, harbor seals, harp seals and hooded seals. And sometimes, for a variety of reasons, those seals are found stranded along the coast.
Illnesses, such as viral infections, cause strandings. So do injuries inflicted by natural predators (such as sharks), boat strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. Another common scenario is a baby seal becoming stranded after being prematurely separated from its mother, or, once weaned, not successfully finding its own food.
For this reason, marine animal rescue organizations like Marine Mammals of Maine are especially busy around seal pupping seasons, which are at different times depending on the species. For gray seals, pupping season is in the winter, from December to March. While for Maine’s more common species, the harbor seal, the season is April through June.
“These [stranded] animals are sentinels of what’s going on in the environment,” Doughty said. “So whether we rehab the animals or the animal doesn’t make it, we’re still getting a lot of valuable information about that animal’s life history and how that may shape the future.”
Doughty has a long history of helping stranded seals and other Maine marine animals. From 2005 to 2011, she led the Maine Department of Marine Resources’ stranding program. And when that program shut down due to loss of federal funding, she founded Marine Mammals of Maine to fill the void in midcoast and southern Maine.
“I was like, ‘There can’t be no one to call [when animals are stranded].’ And they knew that,” Doughty said. “The department worked with me so I could set this up. They actually gave me the equipment to start off.”
Over the years, Marine Mammals of Maine has grown to have two full-time employees, including Doughty, and one part-time employee, as well as a board of directors and a network of about 60 active volunteers. Together, they respond to reports of nearly 300 stranded marine mammals a year. Most of those calls are about seals, but the organization has also responded to stranded whales, porpoises, dolphins and — though not mammals — sea turtles.
For her dedication to marine mammal response, care, research and conservation in Maine, Doughty was recently announced as a CNN Hero of 2020.
In rescuing seals, collaboration is key
While Marine Mammals of Maine covers the coast from Kittery to Rockland, Allied Whale covers the rest of the Maine coast, responding to stranded animals from Rockland north to the Canadian border. Founded in 1972, Allied Whale is the marine mammal laboratory at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, and has long been at the forefront of whale research.
Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.
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