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7 Things you can do to help Seals, and 7 Seal Facts you’ll want to know – with Whitney

a small animal (seal) in a body of water with a city in the background

All of us at Portland Paddle love seals, and especially our flippered friends in Casco Bay who we encounter regularly.  We shared an introduction to the types of seals we see while paddling in our Guide to the Seals of Maine last year, but there’s a lot more to cover. In this post we’ll share some of our guides’ favorite facts to share with groups when they spot a seal, along with ways that you can help seals thrive. 

To round up our favorite seal facts and get some tips on protecting seals, we turned to Portland Paddle guide Whitney Wilson! Whitney has an overflowing passion for seals and she has channeled that into volunteering with Marine Mammals of Maine, a non-profit that responds to reports of stranded marine mammals, and cares for sick, injured and abandoned seals.  When not paddling with seals you’ll likely find Whitney running with her three pups, exploring desert canyons, or nerding out about Portland Harbor’s network of forts


7 Things You Can Do To Help Seals

1) Leave beached pups alone!

a close up of a seal poking its head out of the water

Well-meaning but ill-informed humans are one of the most common causes of injury or death to young seal pups. When people spot seal pups they sometimes wrongly assume they’re in trouble – especially if they’re alone. But mother seals routinely leave their babies resting on shore or exposed rocks while they hunt. The baby can be fine on its own, and in fact it needs this rest time to build up blubber reserves and for the sun to help kill bacteria in its fur. In almost all cases, the best thing you can do for a seal pup is absolutely nothing! 

2) Don’t get too close!

All seals need some rest time, and they get that by “hauling out” on areas that are exposed as the tide recedes. When humans get close to hauled out seals they often scare them off of the rocks and beaches that they routinely rely on for rest. If this happens too often, the seals may abandon the haul out spot entirely. 

A handful of seals with heads poking out of the water, a large rock in the background

Seen at water surface level seals can look like nothing more than grey balls from a distance

In fact, giving space to seals is not only the right thing to do; it’s also the law. It’s actually a federal crime under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to approach within 50 yards of a seal. That’s half a football field, or about 10 sea kayaks lined up. 

If seals that are hauled out are reacting to you, such as by staring, fidgeting, or moving towards the water, then you are likely too close and should back away! If you see a seal in the water while you are paddling, either give it a wide berth as you continue on your way, or stop paddling and let it move towards or away from you as it desires. And finally, never, EVER, try to touch or feed a seal! Their teeth are sharp, their jaws are strong, and they will bite to defend themselves!


3) Donate to or volunteer with Marine Mammals of Maine (or a similar organization in your area!)

When a seal does become sick, injured, or has been handled by humans, there are hardworking volunteer organizations which sweep in to rescue them! Unfortunately, not every seal can be rescued, or will survive even if it is, but these amazing people do everything they can to make it happen. If you see a seal you suspect might need help, such as if it is visibly injured, or has hauled up on a beach crowded with humans, you can call the Maine Marine Mammal reporting hotline at 1-800-532-9551 and they will get you in contact with the appropriate responder.

 You can help these amazing organizations throughout the year by volunteering (trainings are held a few times a year), donating money, or purchasing useful items for them off of their wishlists. In southern and midcoast Maine, the Brunswick based Marine Mammals of Maine responds to all seal distress calls (as well as those for other marine mammals and sea turtles). In Penobscot Bay and Downeast Maine the College of the Atlantic’s Allied Whale program manages rescue responses, while in New Hampshire’s Seacoast and Massachusett’s North Shore the Seacoast Science Center’s Marine Mammal Rescue helps seals in need.

A rescued seal pup crawling out of a carrying crate

A seal pup being released back to the wild after rehabilitation by Marine Mammals of Maine – photo courtesy of MMoM

4) Attend a direct action or fundraising event!

There are lots of events around Maine to help seals and other marine animals. Some of these events take direct action, such as the beach clean ups put on by the Maine Surfrider Foundation, coastal cleanups of the Friends of Casco Bay, or the island caretaking work of the Maine Island Trail Association, while others are fundraising events, such as the Ocean Commotion 5k put on by MMoM or the Sea Coast Science Center’s Rescue Run. Events like this are an excellent opportunity to get involved with the ocean conservation community, as they bring together large numbers of people who care about the sea, and they don’t require the ongoing commitment of other forms of volunteering. 

5) Help keep the ocean healthy by “Bayscaping” and other ways to reduce waste and runoff

One of the biggest threats to seals, and the coastal environment generally, is pollution from runoff. Pollution takes many forms, from plastic garbage, to man made chemicals, to excessive levels of natural nutrients. By reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides and fertilizers on your gardens and yards, picking up trash and dog poop, and making landscaping decisions which slow down storm runoff, you can help to keep the ocean healthy. The Friends of Casco Bay have more detailed advice on their website. And once you’ve made your own changes, consider becoming a community leader, by advocating with your municipal government, or working to educate your friends and neighbors on what they can do to help!

6) Volunteer with a citizen science project, like Friends of Casco Bay’s Water Quality Monitoring Program

One of the best tools in protecting seals and other marine wildlife is knowledge. Without accurate data, scientists, policy makers, and environmental advocates can’t make good decisions to protect our planet. Citizen science projects leverage the power of the community, so that every day individuals can become the eyes, ears, and voice of our ocean. The Friends of Casco Bay run a particularly robust water quality monitoring project, through their Water Reporter program. Participants help FoCB researchers track algal blooms, wildlife abundance, sea level rise, and a number of other invaluable data points for keeping the bay healthy. In conjunction with fixed monitoring stations operated by FoCB scientists and other researchers, watershed monitoring, and a mobile research vessel, the Water Reporter program helps to paint an in-depth picture of exactly what is going on in Casco Bay. FoCB’s work doesn’t end there though, as they also offer pump out services to motor boats, advocate for policy changes, educate the public on how they can protect the bay, and more! 

A zookeeper feeds a harbor seal at the New England Aquarium

A keeper feeds a harbor seal at NEA – photo courtesy of the New England Aquarium

7) Learn more about seals and oceans

There are numerous excellent venues around New England where you can learn more about the sea and immerse yourself in marine ecosystems. You could start with the website of the traveling Seals and Society Exhibit, created by the New Bedford Whaling Museum, to dive in deep about seals and their interactions with humans. Right here in Portland, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute teaches children and adults about fisheries, marine ecosystems, and more through classroom programs, community events, and a state of the art learning center right downtown on Portland’s working waterfront. 

Just down the coast, in Rye, NH, the Seacoast Science Center is a delightful journey into the Gulf of Maine’s coastal and marine ecosystems, with permanent displays, traveling exhibits, keeper talks, expansive views of the gulf, extensive walking trails, and more. Or take a day trip to Boston to visit the New England Aquarium, and support their conservation efforts in the Gulf of Maine! The New England Aquarium is the largest aquarium in the region, with a giant reef tank, penguin home, touch tanks, and a number of other exhibits showcasing both local and exotic species, as well as the conservation, veterinary, and research work which goes into caring for aquarium residents, and protecting their wild cousins. Make sure to check out the NEA’s iconic Atlantic harbor seals right out front, and their California cousins the sea lions, to see just how smart, funny, and playful seals can be!


7 Fun Seal Facts You’ll Want to Know

Seal Fun Fact #1

“Harbor seals can take 30-60 minute naps underwater and they kind of boop around like a balloon below the surface. I think that’s hilarious!” – Whitney

Two seal pups laying side by side with opposite color patterns

Two rescued grey seal pups, one male , one female, showing off the opposing color patterns – photo courtesy of Maine Mammals of Maine

Seal Fun Fact #2

“You can tell the difference between male and female grey seals based on their spots. Female grey seals have black dots on their grey coats, males have grey dots on their black coats. Although, in practice, it is still a little trickier to identify them accurately due to the high density of spots many have. I’m of the controversial opinion that grey seals are better than harbor seals” – Whitney

an indigenous Inuit man in a traditional kayak

A kayak made from seal skin in a traditional style. The hunter’s harpoon is laying across their lap and in the water.

Seal Fact #3

Seals are extremely curious, especially when they’re young. It is not uncommon for seals to pop up just feet away from a paddler. Often they surface just behind the kayak, and then follow for a period as they investigate this strange visitor to their waters. Some have theorized that the movement of a paddle through the water sounds like the movement of fins and flippers to the seals. Certainly, the different shape, color, and smell of paddlecrafts make them intriguing oddities for the inquisitive pups.

Seal Fact #4

Seals and kayaks are intrinsically linked. Kayaks were first developed by the Inuit people of Greenland and were used to hunt seals and other marine mammals for food. What’s more, the first kayaks were made of wood and the skin of seals. Especially prized was the skin of the bearded seal, which was considered to have the strongest and most waterproof skin for kayak building. Inuit hunters also wore coats and other clothing made of seal fur, spray skirts and tuliq made of seal skin, carved seal bone, teeth, and claws into beautiful works of art, and subsisted off of seal meat and blubber. Without seals, there would be no kayaks today! And here in the Gulf of Maine, the indigenous Wabanaki peoples also hunted seals for food with the use of their ingeniously-crafted birch bark canoes.

An infographic depicting the difference between "eared" sea lions and "earless" seals

Infographic courtesy of NOAA Fisheries

Seal Fact #5

Maine’s four seal species are all “earless” or “true” seals. “earless” seals do not have ear flaps sticking out of their heads like us humans and most mammals have. They also share a distinctive inchworm type movement pattern on land, utilizing their bellies to wiggle across the ground, unlike “eared” seals like sea lions and fur seals, which have ear flaps and walk upright on their flippers. 

A fossilized walrus skull in a display case

A fossilized Walrus skull found in New England – photo courtesy of Seacoast Online and the Hampton Beach Oceanarium


Seal Fact #6

This one’s really about a cousin of the seal in the pinniped family: Walruses! These famously toothy pinnipeds haven’t been present in significant numbers in the Gulf of Maine since the end of the ice age, living only in arctic regions now, but Wabanaki accounts and the European historical record show that Walruses were occasionally spotted within the last few hundred years. There may have even been a small breeding population on Sable Island off the southern coast of Nova Scotia. Fossils of walruses are still occasionally found across New England.  

Seal Fact #7

Seals don’t eat every day, all year round like humans do. In fact, during the winter and early spring female grey seals can lose up to a third of their body weight, as they primarily survive off of their blubber reserves, and direct huge amounts of fat into their 40% fat milk to feed their newborn pups. Compare that to human or whole cows milk which are both usually only 3-4% fat! Then the rest of the year seals engage in intense foraging to replenish what they’ve lost, eating a wide variety of fish and shellfish.

A large number of seals hauled out on a rock above the water

Seals hauled our on “halfway rock” during a foggy paddle – photo courtesy of Whitney

Tips for seeing seals with Portland Paddle!

Anytime you venture onto Maine’s coastal waters there’s a chance you might see a seal. While there are ways to raise your chances of encountering a seal while kayaking, it is also critically important to give them the space they need to rest and fish in safety. This is why it can be helpful to go kayaking with an expert guide who can help you explore areas popular with seals in a way that’s responsible. If you’ve got a strong urge to see some seals, why not check out our three day Casco Bay Traverse, where a calm middle day might allow for a visit to the grey seal colony on Outer Green, or try out one of our SUP tours, where there is the chance to spot harbor seals as they fish for crabs and shellfish in the submerged mud flats at the mouth of the Presumpscot River!

“I have no idea how many seals I saw this past summer. There were some days I saw NONE and some where it was over 40! I would estimate I got to witness the greatness of several hundred this past season.” – Whitney

From $1,185

This expedition for intermediate to advanced paddlers explores the most rugged, wild and gorgeous stretch of the Maine coast — the Downeast region that extends to Canada. The tides are more powerful here, the wildlife more abundant and the cliffs more dramatic. It has all the makings for an epic sea kayaking trip.