Are Harbor Seals Bypassing the Outer Banks This Year?

A harbor seal rests on the beach by Jennette's Pier. Photo Darryl Law.
A harbor seal rests on the beach by Jennette’s Pier. Photo Darryl Law.

The weather finally turned cold today. Honestly with that northeast wind blowing at around 25, bitterly cold is properly how it could be described.

It’s been a while since it has been this cold on the Outer Banks. It certainly has saved on heating bills, but the truth is, it is January and it is supposed to be colder than it has been.

Interesting that something we normally see on local beaches seems remarkable by their absence this year. Typically, just about now, harbor seals will pop up out of the surf to rest on the sand for a bit.

They’re usually younger seal, not quite at full strength yet and not as adept at finding food as the full-grown seals.

From a distance, they certainly do look cute. Ok, they even look cute close up. But it is extremely important to leave them alone.

Perhaps most importantly, they are wild animals and they would probably view an approaching human as a threat. An adult Atlantic harbor seal weighs 180 to 200 pounds a perhaps a bit more. And they bite. That is one of their primary defensive weapons.

Because they live in the wild, they are prone to carrying disease and parasites—another good reason to not come in contact with them.

And then there is this—they are a protected species under federal law. Feeding them or in any way harassing them is a federal offense.

There is an OBX Stranding Response Team can be reached at 252-455-9654 to report a seal on the beach.

The beaches of the Outer Banks are a place of continual wonder. Wander along the sea for a week or two while staying at a Joe Lamb, Jr. & Associates home.

Seals Return to Outer Banks Beaches

Seal on the beach in Nags Head.
Seal on the beach in Nags Head.

Yes, that is a seal on the Nags Head beach.

There’s not a lot of them, but surprisingly, every winter a few seal do stop by the Outer Banks. For the most part they’re harbor seals, although an occasional gray seal is also spotted.

They seem to be following colder ocean water temperatures, as a 2015 Cape Hatteras National Seashore study noted.

“When ocean temperatures plummet during the winter and spring months, seal sightings are a common occurrence. Coming from the north, the seals migrate along the Outer Banks coast following the colder water while feeding.”  (Marine Mammal 2015 Summary)

When seen on the beach, they are usually resting. It’s almost unheard of for a colony to take up residence along an exposed beach on the Outer Banks.

During the winter months, however, there are small colonies that inhabit some of the islands in Outer Banks sounds, especially Pamlico Sound.

About a half mile south of Oregon Inlet, Green Island is a wetlands patch of grass and sand that seem to be a favorite resting spot of seals. The 2015 Summary pointed to Green Island as a particularly good good belle weather for seal activity.

“Historically, the south end of Green Island has been used by Harbor seals as a haul-out site for consecutive years, therefore a sighting doesn’t necessarily imply one individual; the most observed at one time in 2015 was 2 but up to 33 seals have previously been observed,” the study’s authors wrote.

There are concerns that construction noise and activity as the new Bonner Bridge is being built will scare seals away, but there is some uncertainty about that.

Although a seal on the beach may look cute, it is important to leave it alone. It is Federally protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act so approaching it is illegal. Beyond that, seals are wild animals and they weigh 200-250 pounds.

If there is concern that the seal is injured or sick,  contact N.E.S.T. (Network for Endangered Sea Turtles) at 252.441.8622.