This baby seal pup was being nursed back to health...

This baby seal pup was being nursed back to health at the Riverhead Foundation before dying of an infection later in the month. (Feb. 21, 2011) Credit: Ed Betz

A baby gray seal pup - so young it still had an umbilical cord attached when it was found on a beach in Montauk - is being nursed back to health at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation.

The infant is about 3 feet long, weighs just over 35 pounds and is no more than a few weeks old. Now white, it will lose its baby lanugo coat and turn darker as it matures. He will also get a lot bigger: Adult male gray seals can grow to be nearly 10 feet long and weigh up to 800 pounds.

"It's in a hospital tank. We routinely do a blood draw, and we're tube-feeding it a fish slurry five or six times a day," said Robert DiGiovanni, senior biologist and director of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation. "It doesn't feed on its own yet."

The goal is to return the seal to the ocean, and DiGiovanni said the foundation must walk a fine line between keeping the seal healthy - it has a slight respiratory infection - and keeping it from becoming too dependent on humans. Right now, that involves the blood tests, antibiotics and running whole fish through a meat grinder to pour down the feeding tube.

The seal was found on Feb. 12 near what Foundation staff call the "seal haul out beach" at Montauk State Park, where seals commonly come out of the ocean during the winter and spring and where a small structure has been set up so people can look at them without disturbing them.

When the foundation got a call about the young seal on its 24-hour stranding hotline, callers were warned not to get too close, and a biologist was sent. Gray seals are a protected species, and people are not supposed to go within 50 feet of them. Foundation staff feared that people approaching a baby seal could scare away its mother.

While this was the first time a gray seal pup in distress was found on a Long Island beach, foundation officials said the gray seal population has been increasing in Long Island waters. Gray seals have been breeding off Nantucket for decades, and have been seen regularly off Long Island since the mid-1980s, DiGiovanni said.

The stranding hotline number is 631-369-9829. This is just about the end of the season for gray seals to give birth.

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