SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — Beach-goers who pose for “seal-fie” photos with harbor seal pups, or even worse, pick pups up, are two problematic trends around the San Francisco Bay Area, wildlife experts said.

The Bay Area and Central Coast are hotspots for marine mammal harassment, experts with The Marine Mammal Center said Monday. As the weather warms up and more people head to the coast, TMMC is warning the public to leave wild animals wild.

Harbor seal pups attract a lot of attention because of their cuteness. But this species is very sensitive to noise and admirers getting too close. As the world’s largest marine mammal hospital, TMMC analyzed data looking at why pups had to be rescued from beaches in 2022.

“Illegal pickups of harbor seal pups in Marin County, and human and dog interactions with young seals and sea lions in San Francisco and San Mateo County, were the standout harassment case examples,” TMMC wrote.

harbor seal pup
Harbor seal pup (Image courtesy The Marine Mammal Center)

One tragic case includes a seal pup, named Snowcone, that was attacked by a dog. The male pup, who was young enough to still be nursing, was rescued in April 2022 at Shell Beach in Sonoma County after being illegally picked up and separated from its mother by two beachgoers.

TMMC wrote, “Unfortunately, trained center responders noted upon arrival to the scene that the pup had suffered severe head trauma consistent with a dog attack. This incident likely occurred after the animal was moved away from the established rookery, or breeding area, to a part of the beach with numerous off-leash dogs.”

Snowcone died on its way to the center’s hospital.

The Central Coast’s beaches had the highest numbers of overall marine mammal harassment cases. But the Bay Area had more “severe cases” of harassment, said Adam Ratner, the center’s associate director of conservation education.

“The tragic case of Snowcone highlights that we have a community that loves marine mammals and wants to help them. But the only way to ensure the safety and wellbeing of these animals is to first call the experts and keep a safe distance until trained responders arrive,” Ratner said.

While crowding is the most prevalent form of harassment range-wide, a significant number of harassment cases were more severe, including dragging the animal, touching it, attempting to feed it or pouring water on it. Harassment by dogs accounted for more than a quarter of all cases.

“While on the surface, taking a close-up selfie or having your dog off-leash near a marine mammal may seem cute and innocent, it can create real challenges, especially for young seals and sea lions,” Ratner said. “These behaviors can separate young pups from their mothers, increase stress and potentially increase the risk for disease.”

A harbor seal nuzzles her pup in Elkhorn Slough in Monterey County on April 8, 2023. (Photo shot by Dan Sedenquist using a long lens from proper distance)

The center’s hospital, located in Sausalito, admitted more than 150 marine mammals last year because of harassment. Incidents were just as prevalent in the summer and fall as they were during California’s busy spring pupping season. “The Marine Mammal Center saw more than 25 percent of their patients in 2022 rescued due to negative interactions by humans and dogs along the center’s 600-mile California response range,” TMMC wrote.

The center is currently working with behavior change experts in an effort to reach beachgoers, tourists, and small businesses in key interaction hotspot areas about how to safely share our shores with marine wildlife. 

Specifically, The Marine Mammal Center is trying to identify the following: 

  • Motivations for problematic behaviors such as touching, moving, harassing or taking up-close selfies with marine mammals.
  • Attitudes, knowledge and demographics associated with such behaviors and the consequences of these problematic actions.
  • Leaders in the community who can help spread the message of how to protect marine mammals.

The Marine Mammal Center issued the following tips to the public:

Keep your distance. “Give marine mammals space to rest by enjoying them from a safe distance both on local beaches and in the water, and keeping dogs on a leash.”

Use your zoom. “It’s OK to take photos and admire the animals, but if an animal reacts to your presence, then you’re too close. No SEAL-FIES please!”

Call the experts. “If you see a marine mammal in distress, do not intervene. Instead, call The Marine Mammal Center’s hotline at 415-289-SEAL (7325). Our experts will monitor the animal and, if necessary, send trained responders to rescue it safely.”

Harassment cases by county for 2022:

  • Santa Cruz : 35 cases
  • Monterey : 31 cases
  • San Mateo : 21 cases
  • San Francisco : 13 cases
  • Sonoma : 8 cases
  • Mendocino : 1 case
  • Solano : 1 case