Untamed Lowcountry

Seal appears on Hilton Head for the first time in nearly decade. Scientists are watching him

A young seal spotted resting on the beach on Hilton Head Island Monday afternoon is the same one seen recently on Myrtle Beach, experts confirmed.

The Hilton Head Sea Turtle Patrol cordoned off an area of the beach in the Palmetto Dunes Marriott area around 2 p.m. Monday to keep beachgoers at bay after the small gray seal was reported.

Amber Kuehn, a marine biologist who is manager of the patrol, said the seal went back into the ocean overnight as expected.

But why is this seal heading south? Even scientists are stumped by that question.

“It is not unprecedented, but it is not what we want to see,” said Susan Barco, research coordinator and senior scientist with the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program.

The juvenile male seal was first tagged by the program after it was found lethargic on the Virginia Beach on Feb. 28. Veterinarians at the Virginia Aquarium Marine Animal Conservation Center gave the seal fluids for dehydration and antibiotics before determining that it had improved enough to be released.

Since March 3, when it was released just north of the area where it originally was captured, it has been spotted moving farther and farther south. It has an orange tag with the number 36 on it on its left rear flipper, allowing researchers to document its movements.

“Having an animal appear in an area where we do not expect it does not mean that there is something wrong with it or that the best answer is intervention,” Barco said.

She explained that the seal’s behavior doesn’t suggest that it is in distress.

“It could be considered an out-of-habitat situation, or it may be deemed best to let it continue to do what it wants,” Barco said.

Wayne McFee, research wildlife biologist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said most of the seal sightings recorded in South Carolina are in the northern part of the state.

The last time a seal was officially recorded as being seen on a Hilton Head beach was in 1997, and another report on Daufuskie Island the next day was likely the same animal, he said. A story published by The Island Packet on March 24, 2010, included photos of a young harbor seal that hauled out onto the beach near Port Royal Plantation.

“This is a yearling, so it’s not too surprising that it’s trying to poke its head into different places,” McFee explained about the gray seal seen Monday. “It might just be curious about other things and may end up going back north, which we hope it will at some point.”

He said as long as the seal is exhibiting normal seal behavior and remains healthy, scientists are unlikely to intervene.

“This one seems to be doing whatever he feels like,” McFee said.

But just being on the beach isn’t something that’s a concern to authorities.

“Down south, we don’t have rocky outcroppings off the beach where seals can haul out,” McFee said. “The only place is on the beach.”

Kuehn said seals typically haul out of the water to rest and warm up. While she said she’s never seen an adult seal on Hilton Head, she’s seen possible tracks.

On Monday, she said, her main concern was keeping people away from the animal.

Because the seal is so young, it’s fluffy and cute, so people want to pet it, she explained. This animal — perhaps because of its previous interaction with people, she said — seemed to not be afraid.

“It hardly reacted to the people being less than five feet away from it,” Kuehn said.

Nevertheless, seals can bite, and as a federally protected marine mammal species, it’s illegal to touch, feed or harrass them.

Instead, Kuehn said, anyone who spots a seal or other marine mammal on the beach, should keep their distance and call the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources at 1-800-922-5431, so the proper authorities can be dispatched to the scene if necessary.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story did not include the 2010 sighting of the seal near Port Royal Plantation. That sighting, though covered by The Island Packet at the time, was not part of official NOAA records.

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