A harbor seal rests on a beach on Assateague Island in late December. (Courtesy of Todd Chandler,…)
After taking a vacation from much of the mid-Atlantic coast last winter, migrating seals have been spotted making a return to Ocean City's bays and beaches.
Two or three gray or harbor seals have been spotted so far, according to reports relayed to the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. The creatures typically migrate from Canada and Maine as the water cools, but during last year's mild winter, few were seen, with little explanation.
Seal trackers are encouraging spectators to report and document sightings. But they caution: While the animals might appear cute and friendly, it's best to keep your distance.
"They're great to watch and a lot of fun but we also want to make sure we don't harm the population by giving them too much attention," said Dave Wilson, executive director of the coastal bays program.
Two types are commonly seen in Maryland waters — the harbor seal, native to waters from Alaska to Mexico and Canada to the Carolinas, and the gray seal, which typically migrates no farther south than Virginia and up to northern Canada, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Several reports have surfaced, said Jennifer Dittmar, stranding coordinator at the National Aquarium in Baltimore who works closely with the program tracking the seals. They have received photos of at least two different individual seals, she said.
One was seen several times around Isle of Wight Bay, spotted around 6th Street and the Ocean City Inlet. Another was photographed on Assateague Island. Other common spots include Drum Island near West Ocean City and another island off of Ocean City's 3rd Street.
In a regular season, sightings of at least 20 individual seals might be confirmed around Ocean City, Dittmar said, with one or two other sightings occasionally in the Chesapeake Bay and even the Baltimore area. The seals typically pass through the area, may stick around if they find a nice source of food, and then move on, she said.
In March, an Edgemere man spotted a harp seal, distinctive from the others for its light grayish white fur, according to the wildlife service, sunning on his dock.
But few were seen in winter 2011-2012, something Dittmar called an "anomaly." The mild temperatures are one possible explanation, but it's not clear what drives the animals' migration behaviors in general, and what caused a change last year.
"Scientists don't really have a handle on why yet," she said.
The bay program is asking those around Ocean City to keep an eye out for the animals. Its focus is on promoting clean-water practices and policies, and raising awareness about the seals swimming through it can help the general public maintain an awareness of their environmental footprints, said Sandi Smith, development and marketing coordinator for the group.
The group has a section on its website, mdcoastalbays.org, where people are asked to report seal sightings.
But the seal advocates encourage spectators to keep a safe distance, because getting too close can push the seals to venture back into the water, where they could be vulnerable to predators if tired after a long swim.
"These animals have expended a lot of energy to get here and when they're out on the beach, they're resting," Dittmar said. "If they're being disturbed, they will flee back into the water."