Hundreds of gray seal pups born on Knox County island
Seal Island — It's a bright, almost remarkably warm morning Jan. 15 as Captain John Morin assists a group of researchers in loading gear onto his 40-foot vessel Equinox at Journey's End Marina. Rockland Harbor is aglow with morning sun and the reflection off the glass-calm water is nearly blinding.
The group of six, hailing mostly from The Audubon Society, has chartered Equinox to investigate a malfunctioning webcam hosted on Seal Island through a partnership with explore.org. Seal Island is a refuge for seasonal seabirds and a pupping ground for gray seals located about 18 miles offshore. The 65-acre island is managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in conjunction with the Audubon Society. Along for the ride is Bill McClellan, a science and math teacher at Medomak Middle School. Morin sets a course and announces that travel time will be just over an hour as he's aiming to make the journey at a speed of 16 knots (about 18 mph).
While Equinox, which was once the ambulance boat for Monhegan Island, boasts a roomy, heated cabin, the passengers opt to sit on the deck. Some have donned their survival suits in anticipation of the day ahead, others are dressed in plainclothes. Seawater sprays periodically onto the deck and an occasional vessel appears along the way. Otherwise the bay is calm and despite the weather, evidence of January surrounds the boat.
McClellan and Morin met when they both worked as instructors at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School. McClellan spent the summer of 2012 as a mate aboard Morin's boat and after shuttling a crew from U.S. Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to Seal Island during the summer, the two came up with the idea of offering the public an opportunity to see the puffins and other pelagic bird species there. The men explained they hope to begin offering expeditions to Seal Island and, possibly, nearby Wooden Ball Island, aboard Equinox. Both islands are sanctuaries for marine mammals and seabirds, McClellan explained. Sixteen species of seabirds were recorded on Seal Island in 2012, according to information from The Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology provided by McClellan.
McClellan, who is presently enrolled in a Maine Master Naturalist certification course, said he and Morin hope to partner with local bird experts to offer the seasonal pelagic bird watching expeditions. McClellan said trips aboard Equinox to view the gray seal colony on the mile-long island could begin as soon as February, adding the cost and departure times would be determined in advance of the trip.
"People can come out and learn about seals and pelagic birds, and there is some very interesting geology [on the island]," said McClellan.
En route to the island, the Audubon group discusses the potential reasons for the malfunctioning webcam. Chris Pennock, a computer and Information Technology consultant contracted by Audubon speculates it could be battery issues or weather-related damage. The last time the camera received a signal was Dec. 20, according to members of the group. The signal inexplicably cut out after that.
"The goal is to get the camera back up and running," said Sue Schubel, an education coordinator for Audubon.
Schubel said because the group is unsure of what is wrong with the camera, they've come prepared with all the possible parts and tools to repair any foreseeable problem with the device. While on Seal Island documentary filmmaker and photographer Janine Parziale will shoot footage of the seals and pups, Schubel explained.
Gray seals typically begin pupping in mid-December, Schubel said. The gray seal colony on Seal Island boasts nearly 1,000 seals, adds Lynda Doughty of Marine Mammals of Maine. The gray seals give birth to their pups all over island, she said.
"[The seals] are usually here when we're not here," said Schubel.
During the summer, puffins and other pelagic birds on Seal Island are monitored by solar-powered cameras. Schubel explained that similar technology is used by seabird restoration projects all over the world and she often is commissioned to make the systems at her Bristol-based business. She said she is presently working on three systems to send to China to aid in the restoration of the "very endangered" Chinese crested tern.
Doughty said Marine Mammals of Maine responds to about 300 total mammal stranding reports annually. They cover territory from Kittery to Rockland and she said she spends most of her time on the road. Of the 300 reported strandings, about 100 animals require rehabilitation. Doughty said those animals are typically taken to University of New England in Biddeford for treatment.
Doughty said several species of seals spend time in Maine waters. In addition to common harbor seals, which are primarily spotted in spring and summer, Maine is home to gray seals, hooded seals and harp seals, she said. In 2010, a harp seal pup was born in Spruce Head — the birth was the first recorded for a harp seal pup in Maine.
The seasonal colony on Seal Island is comprised of gray seals, who migrate there to pup. The gray seal has a long nose or "horse head" and comes in a variety of colors, from gray to brown and often spotted. Adult gray seals can reach weights of nearly 900 pounds and can be up to 10 feet in length, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service website.
Gray seal pups are born with a full set of teeth, said Doughty, additionally the pups have a higher metabolic rate than harbor seals since they are born in December and January. Doughty said humans must remain 150 away from seals, because they are federally protected.
She said a common misconception about stranded seals occurs when humans spot a harbor seal pup on land, apparently deserted, while the mother is out foraging for food. She explained that mother seals communicate with their young through vocalizations and that moving a seal pup can be detrimental to the pup's welfare.
Gray seals are a "little lazier" then harbor seals, Doughty said. She said the mothers tend to stay closer to their pups. Doughty said venturing onto Seal Island posed little or no threat to the research group.
"Hopefully there aren't two males around, the males might be a little edgy," she said.
Upon arriving at Seal Island, Morin picked up a mooring and the research team loaded their gear into an inflatable tender, taking two rowing trips from the Equinox to shore. Within minutes of the vessel's arrival seals began appearing in the surrounding water, some alone and some swimming in groups. Several bald eagles were visible on the rocky island, which ascends 17-feet from the water and is covered in arctic grasses and plants, said McClellan. Access to the island is restricted due to an unexploded ordinance that remains from the island's past use as a bombing range.
A lone lobster boat, out of Vinalhaven, came by the island to check traps. Pulling up alongside Equinox, the captain shouted from his deck that he had seen more than 40 bald eagles on seal island just days before.
As the team worked on the camera — deeming the malfunction was related to battery and wiring issues — seals played, rested and fed on the shore and in the water. White pups lounged on shore, some for hours on end with little movement. A cacophony of constant calls — loud and almost whale-like — carried across the water.
By 4:30 p.m. the camera was functioning and the sun was rapidly setting. Back on board the researchers said the seals appeared healthy and abundant.
The gray seal pupping camera feed launched at 7 a.m. Jan. 16 at explore.org.
For further information on future tours aboard Equinox contact John Morin of Equinox Island Transit, LLC at 236-6890.
Courier Publications reporter Jenna Lookner can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at email@example.com