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Editor’s note: Port City Daily is looking back at our top 25 stories of the year as determined by readership. We will publish two top stories each day from Dec. 21 through Dec. 31, and the three most-read stories of 2013 on Jan. 1, 2014. This story was originally published May 23.
An unusual—and adorable—visitor has been spotted on the sand and in the water at Carolina Beach, and biologists are urging the public to keep a wide berth, no matter how friendly the visitor may seem.
A gray seal—the first spotted this far south, according to observers—has been seen basking on the beach in the area of a sand dredging-beach renourishment project, as well as in the water near the Carolina Beach North Pier, apparently feeding on fish released by fishermen and catching a few of its own.
Since Monday, the seal has been spending a lot of time on land, relaxing and allowing for a process called molting, when its red-brown fur is replaced with a newer, gray coat. Biologists are concerned, however, of human interaction should the seal show up on a public beach—especially over the crowded Memorial Day weekend.
“It is going through its molt, and it must spend extended periods of time on land during this event,” said Ann Pabst, professor of biology and marine biology and co-director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Program at UNCW.
“It is normal for seals to spend time on land, and this seal needs extra time on land—it needs its rest,” she said.
Pabst said the seal, like all marine mammals, is federally protected, noting it is against the law to approach any closer than 50 yards—the distance of half a football field.
“No one should approach, feed, touch or harass the animal in any way,” Pabst said. “This law not only protects the seal—it has chosen our beaches for its molting rest, and we need to respect its needs for space and resources—this law also protects humans. Gray seals let people approach them very closely, and this puts people and seal in harm’s way.”
Pabst described seals as notoriously fearless, allowing people to approach pretty close. But should the seal decide it wants its space, Pabst said the species can strike out, in worst cases biting.
“This is a wild carnivore and can carry diseases, so we do not want that to happen,” she said.
Pabst said the best course of action in such scenarios is to set up a perimeter around the seal to maintain a safe distance, noting one encounter in which wildlife officers at Wrightsville Beach put up cones and “do not enter” tape, as well as signs to educate the public. She said most beachgoers respected that barrier.
Pabst said the gray seal at Carolina Beach is an unusual sight, as such seals are typically seen in the colder waters of the Atlantic Ocean, from Canada and New England to as far south as Virginia.
“It is the furthest south sighting we have had of this species in North Carolina,” Pabst said.
“The seal is a wonderful visitor to our waters, and is apparently going to enjoy the holiday weekend with us,” she said. “It is important to respect and keep him safe, and to keep all of our citizens safe at the same time.”