Big eyes, heart-shaped nose, whiskers—seals are the epitome of charismatic cuteness. So, I may be biased, but one of the best things I’ve seen this year came in March: two rescued gray seals being released back into the Gulf of Maine. Not just because seals are uber adorable (look at that nose!), but because numerous people worked to save these pups, individuals and organizations supported their care, and then people of all ages—toddlers to retirees—came out to a Maine beach in winter, just to watch them leave.
I get a little hit of hope for this world when I see people care about nature and wildlife simply for nature and wildlife’s sake.
Marine Mammals of Maine
These two young seals, Dexxy and Sunshine, were rescued, separately, in Cape Elizabeth in January by Marine Mammals of Maine‘s response rescue team. Dexxy was noticed wandering the snowy streets at night, a quarter mile from the ocean during a snowstorm, by a plow truck driver. He made the news. Sunshine was only two weeks old, still with her white baby fur, and had become separated from her mother for reasons unknown; she should still have been nursing.
Marine Mammals of Maine (MMoME) responds to stranded marine mammals and sea turtles in southern and midcoast Maine (you can report a stranding at 1-800-532-9551). It runs the largest seal rehabilitation facility in the Northeast, caring for sick, injured, and abandoned seals from all over New England. Depending on a seal’s condition that can mean providing rest, medical care, treatment for injuries or infections, and nutritional support to gain strength. Sadly, not all make it, but many do.
Besides being healthy and strong, seals need to be able to chase, catch, and eat fish entirely on their own before being released. In March, Dexxy and Sunshine were deemed ready and Marine Mammals of Maine invited the public to their releases. Most releases are not public, so this was a rare opportunity to see gray seals up close (otherwise it’s required to stay back at least 150 feet). I was in.
Dexxy and Sunshine’s release was held on a private beach in Phippsburg. There were ropes to keep spectators a safe distance away, and the response team held portable blue barricades to steer the seals down the sandy runway, towards the water and away from the people.
The seals arrived in their crates (they were sea dogs!), and, with camera focused and finger ready, I awaited the moment their doors would swing open to freedom. After a few words from MMoME, the latches were sprung. Hooray! And Dexxy and Sunshine remained in their crates, dark round eyes peering out. In hindsight, I suppose I expected quicker exits once presented with an open door, but a more cautious approach to the unknown seems prudent.
After a few minutes checking out the situation, Dexxy was ready and headed out and towards the water. Looking a bit like a remote-control seal, he had the added honor of a satellite tag. Affixed with non-toxic epoxy, satellite tags collect location data for species study, are not painful, and do not interfere with the seal’s activities. A tag could last up to eight months but will fall off when a seal begins its annual molt. Maybe I’m anthropomorphizing, but Dexxy seemed to speed up eagerly as he neared the water and dove into the waves.
Sunshine followed more slowly, but eventually left her crate, meandered toward the water (with a little guidance from those blue barricades), and swum out. For a few minutes, I could see occasional glimpses of each seal swimming—little heads popping up in different directions, further and further off-shore. And then they were gone, into the vast Gulf of Maine.
The Marine Mammals of Maine’s response team waited a half hour on the beach, to make sure neither seal returned, and then it was back to the ongoing work of caring for and responding to other seals and marine mammals in need.
Despite an Unusual Mortality Event being declared in 2022, seal populations have been increasing in New England for years, and MMoME covers one of the busiest seal stranding areas on the East Coast. Back in January, Sunshine and Dexxy were the #4 and #6 seals they responded to in 2023. Now, months later, that number is a couple hundred higher.
Even after weeks of specialized care, there are no guarantees once a seal heads out into the ocean. While gray seals can live 25 years or more, up to half of seal pups don’t survive their first year, according to NOAA Fisheries. With those odds, how do we know when the effort is worth it? Two little seals in the Atlantic feel small amongst all the wild lives—cute and charismatic or not—in our warming oceans and world.
I could go round and round weighing all those lives, our individual and collective efforts, against so much change and need. And sometimes I do. But on one winter morning I saw two get another chance, and that felt invaluable.
Protecting Marine Mammals
All marine mammals are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Marine Mammals of Maine responds to nearly 300 live and dead marine mammals and sea turtles annually, and is the only organization federally authorized to carry out this work in southern and midcoast Maine. Its nonprofit work is almost entirely supported by private donations. For example, Sunshine and Dexxy got their names thanks to Darlings Auto Group and Idexx sponsoring their specialized care.
For more seal pictures, videos, and info on other marine mammals, check out MMoME’s Instagram page. Recently they’ve monitored a young humpback whale in the Sheepscot River. Good news: it appeared healthy and was exhibiting normal behavior.
What to Do if You Find a Seal
What should you do if you come across a seal? Generally, give it space and leave it alone. It’s illegal to approach a marine mammal within 150 feet, or touch or harass one. This includes seals, whales, dolphins, and porpoises, but also sea lions, walrus, manatees, sea otters, and polar bears. Yes, polar bears are considered marine mammals.
Not all seals on land need help—as semi-aquatic animals, seals and seal pups regularly rest on shore—but they all need space. If you spot a stranded seal:
- Stay at least 150 feet away (think of it as three school busses or half a football field), even if the seal appears sick or injured. Do not touch it. Do not water it. Do not feed it.
- Keep more distance if the seal reacts to your presence, such as lifting its head to look at you or yawning, which can be signs of stress.
- Report it. In Maine, call 1-800-532-9551 for any live or deceased marine mammal or sea turtle. Across the country call the NOAA Fisheries Stranding Hotline at (866) 755-6622 or consult the NOAA Fisheries list of regional contacts.
- Keep dogs leashed and help keep other people and pets away until a response team arrives.
- Educate others about what to do and who to call.
- For more info, visit Marine Mammals of Maine or NOAA.
I felt extremely lucky to get to watch these seals return to the ocean—they scooted/slid right by me! Clearly, I was photo happy, and I couldn’t wait to tell my family about this rare, close-up experience. I took these pictures with a zoom lens behind the Marine Mammals of Maine ropes and barricades. However, in typical circumstances, it’s important to stay at least 150 feet away from seals and other marine mammals and not approach them, regardless of how cute they are.
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