Seal pupping season calls for safe wildlife viewing

December 2017

Harbor seal pupping season began last week in southern California, giving wildlife watchers a unique chance to watch seals give birth and care for their young at haul-out sites such as Children’s Pool and South Casa Beaches in La Jolla.

Children’s Pool gives visitors on walkways and viewing platforms the chance to see a harbor seal colony up close. Onlookers should use caution, however, and safely observe harbor seals, California sea lions, and other marine mammals from a distance by adhering to NOAA Fisheries’ Share the Shore guidelines.

Mother and baby harbor seal on rocks. Headline: Wildlife Viewing Tip: Be considerate of seal moms and pups. They need space to bond and nurse!

Safe wildlife viewing is especially important during pupping season for harbor seals, which runs roughly from December to May in southern California  and then gradually extends north up the West Coast, reaching the coast of Washington in the summer.

Pups have fragile bonds with their mothers for the first four to six weeks of their lives. Frightening or flushing mother seals into the ocean may lead them to abandon their pups, which may starve and die.

“The abandonment of a baby harbor seal during pupping season is often a no-win situation,” said Justin Viezbicke, NOAA Fisheries Stranding Coordinator for California. “We may not be able to rescue an injured or abandoned animal surrounded by others without disturbing the rest of the animals causing additional abandonments. It’s a really challenging situation.”

Not all seal pups alone on a beach are abandoned.  Mothers may leave newborns in search of food, often returning many hours or even days later. Only an expert from NOAA Fisheries or another organization that is part of the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network, such as SeaWorld Rescue, can determine if a pup’s mother has abandoned it. Only these authorized personnel may touch or handle a marine mammal.

“We typically wait 24 to 48 hours to determine if a pup has been abandoned,” said Viezbicke. “Even then it may not be obvious, since the mother could be foraging during the day and feeding the pup at night.”

Five harbor seals on sand, facing the waterline.

If you spot what you think is an abandoned or sick marine mammal, call our hotline at 1-866-767-6114.

In general, for safely viewing harbor seals:

No matter where you see marine mammals and other sea life, be sure to use proper beach or ocean etiquette. The wildlife will thank you.

For more information see:

Safe viewing of marine mammals, including printable “Share the Shore” flyers in English, Spanish, and Chinese

Share the Shore Video: Give Seals and Sea Lions Space Public Service Announcement

Human legs are sticking out from under an enormous, male elephant seal on the beach.

Photo: National Marine Sanctuary

National Marine Sanctuary’s safe wildlife viewing tips -- Ocean Etiquette