NOAA Fisheries is responsible for the management and protection of all marine mammals found along the nation’s coasts and delegates these responsibilities, which include responding to marine mammal emergencies and strandings, to a network of marine mammal organizations nationwide. As an active member of the Northeast Regional Stranding Network and the Maine Strandings Collaborative, Allied Whale is obligated to aid any stranded marine mammal as quickly and efficiently as possible, while protecting the public from any potential dangers.
Our response area covers approximately 2,600 miles of indented coastline and includes the myriad of islands in between, so team members must be ready to travel several hours to respond to a stranded animal.
The types of strandings to which Allied Whale typically responds includes the harbor seal pups in spring and summer time and harp and hooded seals—collectively known as the “ice seals”—during the winter months. Harp and hooded seals are “pagophilic” meaning ice-loving as they inhabit pack ice a good part of the year and produce their young on the pack ice off the Labrador Front in Canada. Historically, the range of the ice seals extended from the Arctic in summer south to Newfoundland in winter. However, since the early 1990s, these species have extended their range inching south to New England and even beyond with individuals seen in some of the southern states. Today harp and hooded seals are now commonly seen in Maine from December to April. The fourth type of seal species found here are the grey seals, responding to adults and juveniles in the summer, and the pups in winter—as pupping time occurs between December and February.
We are fortunate to work with an extensive network of trained volunteers along the coast who are able to assist us in assessing the health of reported animals, and retrieve animals who are ill or in dangerous situations. Further, we work with other member of the Northeast Region Stranding Network and within Maine, the Maine Strandings Collaborative to assist each other to assess and if needed, to collect these animals in a timely manner, taking them to the (now) only rehabilitation facility in Maine: the Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center (MARC) at the University of New England in Biddeford.
Seal Species in the Gulf of Maine
Grey seals are common around in the Gulf of Maine and beyond. They can be found a little more offshore, often in the company of harbor seals. The pups are born between December and February so we often have to respond to these youngsters like this one found one winter on Sand Beach in Acadia National Park.
Harp seals are an Arctic visitors who typically range from the Arctic south to Newfoundland and Labrador. In the past decade, they have increased their range further south to the US Eastern seaboard. While once more a rarity here, they are now commonplace in the Gulf of Maine. They are often sighted in winter sunning themselves on snow or an ice pan. Called “harp” seals for the distinctive lyre harp shape on the backs of adults, these seals are known as “whitecoats” when born for the white lanugo or birthcoat which is shed in the first couple of weeks of life. The age class of harp seal we tend to see are the juveniles, who are around 12-14 months old. These are known as “beaters” for the erratic way they swim at that age.
Hooded seals are quite the ocean wanderer! Like the harp seal it is an Arctic seal being comfortably at home on ice pans. This robust seal has a broad head and pretty blue grey pelage dorsally with sharp white demarcation underneath. It is born with this coloration which it loses in a couple of years emerging with a splotched pelage. The hooded seal has the distinction of having the shortest nursing period of any mammal—approximately 4 days!
This is the most common seal species seen along Maine’s shores. They are often seen in colonies along rocky islands and outcroppings.
Except for seals, live strandings of cetaceans (whales,dolphins, porpoises) on the coast of Maine are uncommon, although reports of entanglements in the Gulf of Maine have increased.
Almost all reports of stranded cetaceans involve dead animals. In the case of a large, dead whale Allied Whale travels to the animal, performs a necropsy and collects Level A data and tissue samples which might determine the cause of death or provide valuable information for a collaborating scientist’s research. Smaller cetaceans such as porpoises or dolphins are usually collected and transported back to the College of the Atlantic. There it is necropsied , flensed, cleaned and prepared for educational purposes or put on display at the Bar Harbor Whale Museum. Most of the articulated skeletons have been prepared by students as part of their studies including a humpback whale, common dolphin, pilot whale, pygmy sperm whale, white-sided dolphin, harbor seal, True’s beaked whale, and minke whale.