Some of the beachgoers who are crowding Long Island shores amid the coronavirus pandemic are encountering seals and calling the New York Marine Rescue Center in large numbers, believing the seals are in distress when the vast majority are not.
The center, which helps rescue injured or entangled seals, said the flood of calls has increased to such a high level this spring that it’s devoted a full-time employee to field them. Most don’t involve a rescue.
"Right now we probably have over 500 calls for this month,” said Maxine Montello, director of the center. That’s a big jump from the 300 calls for the month last year.
Montello said the problem is that most of the people who call the center don’t understand the difference between a resting seal and one that’s injured or in distress.
“My big concern is that people are not understanding the Marine Mammal Protection Act,” said Montello, noting that it requires people to stand 150 feet back from seals and other mammals that come ashore.
She said that some have even taken matters into their own hands, including beach walkers who tied rope around a seal to drag it back into the water.
“Unfortunately, most of the time seals just want to rest and people are actually causing more harm to them,” she said. “One woman poured [fresh] water onto a seal thinking it was thirsty and it ended up dying.”
The federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) agency is urging residents to keep a safe distance.
"As more people are taking to the outdoors and we approach harbor seal pupping season, we are asking the public to help us by social distancing with animals too," the agency said in a release Thursday. "Respect the social distance that is required by these sensitive animals. Help our stranding responders stay safe by not endangering, touching, or closely approaching potentially healthy animals."
Montello said only about one in 10 or 15 seals on the beach actually need rescue by the center, which is the only one in the region authorized to do the work. Currently there are five seals at the center’s Riverhead office for care, along with more than two dozen sea turtles. Seals should never be touched, and calls should only be made to the center if seals show physical injury or entanglement.
It’s normal for seals to rest with heads and tails lifted, Montello said, which people sometimes believe indicates a level of distress. Some seals open their mouths and show teeth, even begin barking, signs some believe is a “cry for their mothers” in younger seals. In fact, Montello said, “it’s really aggressive behavior when people get too close.”