Human curiosity likely killed a young seal.
The female harp seal, the second rescued by a Riverhead nonprofit this week, initially appeared to be in good health when it was spotted Thursday morning on a Point Lookout beach, said Maxine Montello, rescue program director for the nonprofit, New York Marine Rescue.
"She looked great. She was in a banana shape, which is kind of like the head and tail are up," said Montello by telephone. "It's a great indication the animal is just enjoying the sun."
Nassau police had said the pup was hurt but, Montello said, "We didn't see any injuries on her. She looked great throughout the day."
But Montello believes the seal's location was circulated on social media, potentially bringing out visitors who could have looked like big predators to the seal — triggering it to eat sand, which can cause dehydration, out of stress.
"I do think there were some people who definitely sought her out," Montello said. "We had been told someone shared the location of her on Facebook, and I think people were actively going out."
Even darkness apparently was not enough to keep people away, even though anyone who gets closer than 150 feet risks federal fines of up to $11,000 and a year in jail.
"Overnight, she started to get more attention" from people, Montello said.
By Friday morning, the seal was declining rapidly.
"It was almost like a completely different animal. She definitely had been eating sand, and was going downhill, so we immediately picked her up and brought her back," Montello said.
Marine Bureau officers, only identified by their last names — Kannengeiser, Sanford and Shahinian — helped a member of the rescue center "in safely securing the seal pup in a transportation crate," the police said on Friday.
"Unfortunately (despite) everything we did, we weren't able to save her with hydration," Montello said.
The seal died later the same day, Montello said.
The harp seal was the second rescued this week on Long Island. The other seal had also been eating sand and was in critical condition when plucked from a Fire Island beach on Tuesday, but Montello said the 1-year-old female is doing well. It has been named Pat Benatar.
Harp seals are born in the Artic. In the spring, they migrate hundreds of miles south, following fish. The dark spots on their backs that look like the shape of a harp, giving them their name, then emerge.
Their fear of people causes them to ingest sand and sometimes even rocks, which can rupture their stomachs. Harp seals are especially at risk because they do not flee back to the water as some other species may do.
"We really understand people want to see and interact with these animals," Montello said. But, she said, "Don't touch the animals, don't feed them, don't put blankets on them, keep your distance and enjoy them in nature."
Montello urged anyone who spots a seal on Long Island beaches to call the New York Marine Rescue Center at 631-369-9829 so they can monitor the animals.
"Call our hotline," she said. "We want to know where every seal is hauled out."
With Antonio Planas