A sick seal rescued from the shore of Kennebunk by Marine Mammals of Maine in February is now being rehabilitated at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. The Maine rescue organization and aquarium have a history of working together to rehabilitate stranded seals and other marine mammals, as well as sea turtles. Rehabbers refer to the seal as Pup 006. (Courtesy of Mystic Aquarium) Credit: Courtesy of Mystic Aquarium

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.

Credit: Courtesy of Mystic Aquarium

Both Allied Whale and Marine Mammals of Maine are federally permitted to carry out this work, and they work closely together, especially when they find an animal in need of rehabilitation.

“There’s limited long-term rehab capacity for seals in the Northeast,” Doughty explained. “We try to be selective of the animals we rescue. We make sure this animal really needs help, and we can’t always rescue the ones that need it.”

While both organizations can provide short-term care to marine mammals and sea turtles, Marine Mammals of Maine is the only organization in Maine with federal permitting to provide long-term rehabilitative care to these animals. And the permits limit them to caring for just four seals at a time. This places their rehabilitation center at full capacity much of the time, Doughty said.

To help with this problem, Maine has long partnered with Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut, which is also federally permitted to rehabilitate seals. They’ve also sent animals to the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. But those facilities can become maxed out, too.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point of rehabbing all the seals or animals that need it,” Doughty said. “But we’re just trying to do our part to sustain ourselves and help the animals as much as possible and work up from there.”

This month, Marine Mammals of Maine moved its triage and rehabilitation center from Harpswell to Brunswick. Once settled into the new space, Doughty would like to see the organization continue to grow and increase its rehabilitation capacity, but she’s cautious about taking on too much too quickly.

Marine Mammals of Maine estimates that each stranding response cost $350 on average, and rehabilitating just one seal costs between $6,000 and $8,000. Larger marine mammals cost much more, Doughty said. The last porpoise rehabilitated in the Northeast cost about $80,000. For this reason, rehabilitation for these larger animals is seldom an option.

As a nonprofit, Marine Mammals of Maine is funded through donations. The organization also sells $100 memberships and $60 adopt-a-seal packages (as well as whale, dolphin and sea turtle packages) and posts an online wish list of equipment that they need.

In addition to animal rescue and rehabilitation, the organization participates in marine research and works to educate the public through outreach programs.

Seal pup 006

Just a day after being rescued from the beach, seal pup 006 was transported to Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, to become the clinic’s first rehab patient of 2020. At first, he was too weak to swim, so they only partially filled his pool with water. Blood work showed that he had an infection, so they started him on a regimen of antibiotics. They hid the pills in fish, much like a dog-owner might conceal medication in a dog treat. One problem: the seal pup didn’t know how to eat the fish.

“He was actually pretty funny,” said Sarah Callan, assistant manager of Mystic Aquarium’s animal rescue program. “He’d grab the fish and almost eat it like an otter, with two front flippers holding it and eating little bites.”

Seals typically swallow fish whole. Eventually, he got the hang of it. Now, after a few weeks of care, he’s getting stronger and swimming around in a full pool of water. He’s also turned out to be a very vocal seal.

“He’s feisty,” Callan said. “We like to see that. That means he’s doing well and he’s getting stronger. We’ve definitely seen improvements with him.”

Grey seals wean from their mothers at three to four weeks of age, so pup 006 is old enough to be on his own, Callan explained. The clinic is simply waiting for him to pack on some weight — ideally 20 pounds — and his blood work needs to show that he’s clear of infection. Once he’s been off medication for a couple of weeks, the clinic will start planning his return to the wild.

Mystic Aquarium releases all of their seals on a quiet beach in Rhode Island. From there, they travel far and wide. Each seal is outfitted with a non-invasive tag on their flipper that displays a unique ID number. That way, if they are stranded again, they’ll know the seal’s history. They also can sometimes track the seal’s movements through sightings and photographs by the public. And on occasion, they fit a seal with a more expensive tag that can be tracked by satellite.

“We have a whole database to record these things,” Callan said. “It’s always fun for our team to see them thriving.”

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Aislinn Sarnacki

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.