A seal pup, Ottie, was released back into the ocean at Robert Moses State Park.  Credit: John Roca

Six seals — most injured by boats or propellers, or ensnarled in fishing nets — are being released on Long Island in a series of celebrations, amid what animal rescuers say might be a pandemic-fueled increase in interactions between the mammals and humans.

Two of the seals, both adopted by local schools, have already been released at Robert Moses State Park in Babylon.

The first seal, named Williams, was found with a wreath of green monofilament fishing line around his neck. Monofilament netting, which can be hard for fish to see, can cut flesh deeply and swiftly.

“Can you imagine having a really deep laceration behind your head, which is painful?” asked Maxine Montello, program director for the New York Marine Rescue Center, which cared for Williams during his recuperation.

Williams was adopted by the students at Manetuck Elementary School in West Islip, which has raised about $50,000 for the center over the past 17 years, principal Vanessa Williams said.

The seal was named for the principal, in honor of her efforts to unite the school during the pandemic.

"I was completely blown away," said Williams. “What better way to acknowledge me than … an action where we are working collaboratively through fundraising on behalf of an animal for it to be released back to the wild?"

The second seal, who returned to the ocean this week, was adopted by the students at Jericho High School, who voted to name him Ottie.

Students attend the release of a seal pup, Ottie, at Robert...

Students attend the release of a seal pup, Ottie, at Robert Moses State Park. Ottie, one of six to be released, was adopted by the environmental club at Jericho High School. Credit: John Roca

Ottie's tale exemplifies how rescuers say humans can sometimes do more harm than good when trying to help an injured animal.

The seal was “actually reported to us by some beach walkers. There were attempts made of pulling the animal back into the water,” Montello said.

But Ottie had a swollen and infected flipper — known as "Catcher's Mitt" — and those kinds of infections spread rapidly and can prove fatal.

Approaching injured animals is also prohibited by the 1972 federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, which requires people to stay at least 150 feet away or risk fines of as much as $100,000 and up to one year in prison.

To help care for Ottie, Jericho High's environmental club, with the Kids Helping Pets club, raised $3,000 through efforts like bake sales, said Reena Bhasin, a teacher and an adviser to the school's environmental club.

Former Jericho High School student Keertti Sinnan, now a sophmore...

Former Jericho High School student Keertti Sinnan, now a sophmore at Tufts University, at Robert Moses State Park, where Ottie was released. Credit: John Roca

Keertti Sinnan, 19, a Jericho High School graduate now attending Tufts University, won approval to adopt a seal as president of the environmental club. 

“I’m very glad that through the pandemic and all the political divide in our country there is something very beautiful — the community came together to create some spark of hope for the future,” Sinnan said.

'Human impact'

Increasingly, rescuers say they are finding seals — along with sea turtles, dolphins and whales — harmed by people, either directly or by their boats or trash left behind.

“We see more and more of these problems. Some animals that have come through [bear] some aspect of human impact,” said Lisa Becker, director of marine wildlife rehabilitation for the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts.

“There are a lot of shared spaces, especially in this area, where these seals would come out of the water and rest, but those areas also are used by humans,” Becker said.

Both Long Island and Cape Cod, where the center is located, drew urbanites during the pandemic, and rescuers fear newcomers may be harassing seals, mistaking naps on beaches for problems. Others may simply find pups blocking their way.

Some of the seals being cared for at the Massachusetts center may have been abandoned by their mothers, after they were moved from boat ramps in Maine, where they were resting, Becker said. All were just a few days to a couple of weeks old — too young to survive on their own.

If beachgoers see a lone pup, instead of interfering, Becker advises calling the local wildlife agency, which can then monitor the situation. 

More celebrations to come

On Long Island, rescuers expect four additional seals will be released in coming weeks.

One, named Elm, was found bleeding "profusely" in Long Beach from a badly-injured nail.

He should be freed in a few weeks — and the public can adopt him, Montello said.

Willow, the sole female, was also found bleeding after she was hit by a boater near Smith Point. Now she has regained mobility in her broken right shoulder, and gashes from the propeller are healing, Montello said.

Of the last two males, one yet to be named suffered a fractured jaw. The other, named Cedar, came in with pneumonia and an injured flipper.

They too could be released in the next few weeks. 

Montello urged boaters to be more vigilant in surveying the waters.

"Wear polarized sunglasses so you can see the horizon, and have a spotter looking out for marine life, because it can be life or death," Montello said. And, she said, "If you hit one of these animals, call our hotline."

HOW TO HELP

Anyone who hits a marine animal, or finds an injured animal, can call the New York Marine Rescue Center's hotline at 631-369-9829.

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