Bug, The Orphaned Baby Harbor Seal, Moved To Crescent City

Friday, May 3, 2013
Bug, waiting for mom, who never returned. Photos by KLH | Eye

Bug, waiting for mom, who never returned. Photos by KLH | Eye

Kevin L. Hoover

Eye Editor

ARCATA MARSH – The little Pacific harbor seal was only four or five days old when he appeared in the mud of low tide near the boat launch on South I Street. Mama seals often park their pups on a convenient beach while they go out to fish.

A sign nearby cautioned interested observers to stay away and let nature take its course, as the pup’s mom was probably coming back for him.

Bug signBut two days later, April 23, the baby seal was still there, languishing on the concrete ramp at the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary’s most heavily used parking lot. He had lost weight, was getting dehydrated and lurching aimlessly around the hot ramp in the midday sun.

With mom nowhere in sight and the stranded baby’s condition deteriorating, the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center (NMMC) swung into action. The Crescent City-based organization is well practiced in seal recovery.

“We had been watching him since Sunday,” said Lynda Sale-Stockton, stranding coordinator for the NMMC. “He hadn’t moved more than 10 or 30 feet.”

In cases like this, the group generally takes a hands-off approach so as to allow nature to take its course. Stockton said a mother seal may leave her pup on a beach for up to a day as she hunts down food. “They don’t always know how to pick a good spot,” she said.

Sales-Stockton said the pup weighed just 12 to 15 pounds, and still had its umbilical cord attached when she first saw it Monday.

While Arcata’s Marsh and the boat launch are well within the wildlife sanctuary, not everything that happens out there is eco-friendly. Arcata’s park rangers not uncommonly encounter fishermen and even hunters at the Marsh. Unleashed dogs harassing wildlife are a constant problem. The South I parking lot is home to occasional unsavory activity, from druggies doing deals to immolated porta-potties.

On this day, Dennis Houghton, natural resources maintenance crew leader for the City’s Environmental Services department had just returned from the adjoining Little Lakes property with a large truck filled to the top with property and debris from an elaborate, illegal campsite he had just dismantled there.

Houghton had stopped in at the Marsh to give direction to a group of sturdy young California Conservation Corps workers, deployed there to rip out the usual invasive non-native foliage and do other restoration work nearby.

Meanwhile, a stream of cars, vans and trucks came and went from the lot, passing just feet from the panting baby seal, some with music blaring. Vehicular exhaust, plus the occasional scent of cigarettes and the omnipresent cannabis fumes wafted by.

Amid all this hurly burly, the days-old baby seal languished on the concrete ramp, resting against the plastic dock and likely wondering where the mother it had barely gotten to know and had last seen two days ago had gone.

Misdirected kindness causes the most concern for wildlife care professionals. Inappropriate attention – people petting or feeding the little animal the wrong things – could kill the fragile creature with kindness. The scared animal could even harm its admirers, responding to unaccustomed attention with a bite.

“We don’t know what goes on throughout the day,” Sales-Stockton said. “People want to touch him. They’re just adorable.”

So, with the pup losing weight, drying out and surely weakening, the center intervened. By noon, the baby was on board a NMMC vehicle in good hands and with a new name – “Bug.”

At the Crescent City facility, he’ll get a steady diet and will quadruple in mass before being released into the wild.

Bug’s rescue had gone pretty much by the book, with the NMMC quickly notified and able to monitor the situation.

The organization rescues as many as 60 stranded marine mammals per year, mostly sea lions but also harbor and elephant seals. Bug joins seven animals retrieved from similarly dire straits.

Should you encounter a stranded marine mammal, leave it alone, but do call the NMMC immediately. (707) 465-6265