Beachgoers often walk up to seals, sea lions and sea turtles with what they think– especially if they want the perfect picture or think the animal is injured and they can help. But their actions are causing more damage than they realize, marine life experts said.
Willow, a seven-month-old gray seal pup, was being rehabilitated at the Wildlife Rehab Center on New York’s Long Island after being hit by a boat. The incident left her with a broken shoulder and deep cuts on her back.
Maxine Montello and her team at the New York Marine Rescue Center also worked to rehabilitate a male seal named Cedar, who was found with severely infected fins.
Volunteers Lenore McGinn and Lorraine Misciagno help Nurse Willow and Cedar regain their health.
“Oh, Cedar is a fat monkey,” they told CBS News. “He’s cute, he comes up, he looks at you, he constantly wants to eat more.” Willow is kind of quiet. The seals certainly all have their own personalities.”
Unfortunately, more and more animals end up in the shelter and all too often this is the fault of humans. Boats, abandoned fishing gear and pollution lead to injuries to dozens of seals and sea turtles. One of the biggest threats is litter left on the beach.
“We see these entanglements, with the plastic bags and the plastic in the water,” the volunteers said. “They end up in the ocean, and then unfortunately the animals suffer because they eat them because they think they’re food.”
Another growing problem is harassment. Last week,caught beachgoers fleeing two sea lions apparently competing for territory. Experts said people got too close to the animals.
In addition, a group of people in Texas allegedly took pictures in April and even rode a dolphin. The dolphin died.
“People want to get close, they want to take that selfie, they want to touch that animal,” Montello said. “If you see them, enjoy them from a distance.”
Even well-meaning people who think they are helping can make things worse. After Willow was injured, a Good Samaritan picked her up and put her in his truck to take her to a vet.
“He wasn’t trying to hurt this animal, but picking up these animals is illegal, Montello said. They are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”
If you are on the beach and see a stranded or injured animal, marine wildlife experts recommend calling the nearest rescue center. While CBS News witnessed a bystander doing just that, they called to report a badly injured sea turtle.
The team said they were able to save it thanks to the call.
“This is a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, it’s one of the most critically endangered sea turtles, so we really appreciate you calling us,” biologist Victoria Gluck told the bystander.
Meanwhile, Willow and Cedar are recovering well and they have both gained 30 pounds. Now, said Montello, it is time for them to go home.
The couple had their final check-up, were weighed, were smeared to check for diseases, and their blood was drawn. After starting the summer in rehab, it was time for them to get back to nature.
Cedar went first and seemed only too grateful to be back in the water. But Willow was nervous and for a moment it looked like she wouldn’t go. Finally she went into the water.
“This is the best part of the job. All our hard work has paid off. Our goal is to get them back into the wild to bring them back home,” Montello said.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act recommends that people stay at least 50 meters away from wildlife.