A harbor seal found itself being adored by beach-goers last week when it came ashore at the heel of Hilton Head Island.
"He was right at the edge of the surf, and he appeared tired," said Angela Barbic, who gathered with others to watch the seal and photograph it March 15 on the beach near Port Royal Plantation.
"As soon as people backed off, he opened his eyes wide up, and he flopped around. ... He had the biggest, prettiest eyes," she said.
Another bystander called the National Ocean Service's Marine Mammal Stranding Program, which sent an aide to watch over the seal from a safe distance and ensure it wasn't injured.
It turns out the seal was just resting, said Wayne McFee, a scientist with the ocean service.
"Seals swim, they get tired, they haul out of the water to groom themselves and rest up," he said. After nightfall, the seal was ready to return to the water and shuffled off the beach.
McFee didn't know how old the seal was or whether it was male or female.
Seal sightings are unusual in South Carolina. There were 26 sightings between 1993 and 2004 and no reported sightings again until 2009, McFee said.
This is the third seal sighting this year in the state, he added. The first was at Litchfield Beach, where a seal swam 30 miles upstream in freshwater, possibly chasing shad. It had to be rescued and returned to the ocean.
"Who knows what they're thinking when they do that," McFee said.
Another seal was found decomposing in the Folly River in Charleston. Scientists could not determine the cause of death.
The seals might have traveled south to escape an abnormally cold winter in their usual northern habitat.
"Sometimes they just keep going until the water temperatures warm up," he said.