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Chebeague Island: Casco Bay's seal nursery and day-care center

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Chebeague Island: Casco Bay's seal nursery and day-care center

CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — "It's a girl, about a week old," said Linda Doughty as she gently turned over the week-old baby seal, plump with baby fat and with a still visible umbilical cord. The pup had been stranded for three days recently on an island beach, one of five stranded on Chebeague in the past two weeks – four on the same beach.

Other baby seals have been stranded on Cousins and Long islands and one on a beach in Falmouth off Wildwood Lane over the previous 10 days. All were taken to the Marine Animal Rescue Center (MARC) in Biddeford, as were three of the five Chebeague seals. Two apparently were reunited with their mothers.

Doughty, the sole employee of Maine's Department of Marine Resources (under a federal grant) covering the coast south of Rockland, is very busy since this is the height of the spring seal pupping season.

But she is not alone. More than 40 volunteers assist her. And hundreds of concerned citizens call the hotline (1-800-532-9551) on an almost daily basis about seals, porpoises, dolphins, whales and sea turtles found stranded, dead or entangled in nets.

The baby seals Doughty took to the rehab center, operated by the University of New England, were nursed there. Some were put on intravenous fluids. They will later be taught to fish and then released.

Doughty, a graduate of Maine Maritime Academy and sternman on a lobster boat in the summer when time permits, said there have been at least 118 confirmed cases of stranded or dead marine mammals since Jan. 1.

Two baby seals were recently rescued and taken home by residents in Rockland and Harpswell, she said, in the mistaken but well-intentioned belief they were being saved. Both those seals also were later taken to the Biddeford rehab center. But Doughty warned that because seals are federally protected animals, it is illegal and a prosecutable offense to remove them from the wild. It also means if the seals' mothers return, they won't be able to find them.

That is why Doughty did not rescue the first Chebeague seal until its third day on the beach. It was then clear the mother was not coming back to get her, Doughty said. Chebeague Harbormaster Claire Ross brought Doughty around to the beach by boat, with a small dog carrier and blankets to rescue the first seal.

The second seal to land on Chebeague apparently did become reunited with its mother, after spending a day on the sand, waddling up and down to keep just out of reach of the tide and sometimes swimming in the shallow waters.

That is where the seal found John Ash. He was standing in rubber hip boots working on his dinghy when the seal called out to him and swam vigorously over, squeezed between his legs and circled, carrying on an enthusiastic, one-sided conversation. "Vocalization is the way seal pups and their mothers usually find each other," Doughty later explained.

Ash thought his black rubber boots might have looked enticingly seal-like. That baby seal, whose health was also being monitored by Harbormaster Ross, apparently was reunited with its mother that night. It demonstrates why the rescue service does not generally pick up baby seal pups immediately.

The fourth baby seal, found on the beach by a Virginia couple visiting the island, also was apparently picked up by its mother during the night. It was gone by morning.

The third seal pup on Chebeague, though slightly older, as its umbilical cord was gone and its teeth coming out, was actually smaller and not in as good health, Doughty said. After a cold night on the beach its condition was noticed by Chebeague resident Jane Frizzell, president of the island historical society. She called Ross, who came down and saw it shivering, and wrapped it in a jacket donated by an artist painting on the Artist Point beach.

Ross carried it to Frizzell's car and they drove around for about 15 minutes to look for a cage to put it in, but the seal pup stopped shaking and fell asleep cuddled in Ross' arms, so they drove back to the beach to put it in the same spot for the night. But the next morning it was still there and looking not in good health. Ross took it over to Cousins Island by boat, where Doughty picked it up and drove it to the Biddeford rehab center.

(These are not the traditional duties of harbormaster or president of the historical society, but on Chebeague they now may have to change the job descriptions.)

So, why is one small Chebeague beach such a popular seal nursery and day-care center? Why are seal pups being dropped off by their mothers on beaches around Casco Bay?

First, the bay has hundreds of islands and a large harbor seal population, Doughty said. Also baby seals get lost and mothers sometimes abandon them on purpose. Not seeing a pup where she left it or seeing humans around it also may cause a mother to flee. Despite common wisdom, she said, the scent of humans having touched a seal pup apparently does not deter its mother. But moving the pup does.

The probable source of the Chebeague seals is Goose Nest Ledge, a half mile away and a popular harbor seal hangout. It also is where numerous boats go aground, including a Casco Bay Lines ferry a few years ago. Buoys now mark the ledge.

While most of the stranded seals this spring have been harbor seals, there also are gray seals native to the bay and Canadian harp and hooded seals, which migrate down to the slightly warmer Maine waters in winter, Doughty said. There already have been sightings of whales, dolphins and porpoises. And seven leather turtles were reported stranded or dead along the coast last fall, including four in Casco Bay, where two were found dead and two were freed from entangling nets. The turtles come in off the Gulf Stream following warm currents and jelly fish, Doughty said.

How are the baby seals doing in rehab? The first, Doughty said, has already made a friend to swim with in the friendly waters of the Rehab Center. The other seals are all alive and in one stage or another of rehabilitation.

Human and seal life may ebb and flow with the tides of Casco Bay. But this spring has been different, with human mammals, rescuers, rehabilitators, coastal residents and visitors helping an unusually large number of their marine mammal neighbors.

Paul Hodge, a summer Chebeaguer, is a retired reporter and editor at The Washington Post.

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Photo:
The first of Chebeague Island's recent seal pup visitors. (Contributed photo)