Putting seals on a Duck

Take a virtual trip on a marine mammal release at the Isles of Shoals

Jim Cerny, story and photographs

The Shoals Marine Lab (SML) based on Appledore Island is cooperating with Mystic Aquarium (Connecticut) to restore seals to the wild Mystic Aquarium has the seals and Shoals Marine Lab has the transportation.

Pennant for the Shoals Marine Lab flying on the research vessel "John B. Heiser".

Duck Island, the northernmost of the Isles of Shoals, and, adjacent to Appledore, is excellent seal habitat, often with a population of 100 or more. Duck Island is about 11 acres with an elevation of only 10 feet. Several of the surrounding ledges are large enough to have names: Southwest, Mingo, Shag, and Eastern. Duck is about six miles from Rye Harbor and about ten miles from the usual excursion docks in Portsmouth Harbor.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) requires special permits involving activities such as research and display. And as Hal Weeks, assistant director for SML, noted: "The objective here is to get the rehabbed seals back into the wild with a minimum of additional human contact." Times have certainly changed since I was a kid in the 1950s, watching from New Castle Beach as puffs of smoke rose from Duck Island while planes out of nearby Pease Air Force Base in Newington practiced bombing!

In early August Mystic Aquarium brought two seals, one a harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) and one a gray seal (Halichoerus grypus), for release at Duck. Because Duck Island is in Maine, representatives from Maine's Department of Marine Resources (DMR) were also present for the release.

Mystic staff, Ainsley Smith and Skip Graf, posed with the seals in crates, before leaving the dock in Portsmouth. The harbor seal is in the blue crate and the gray seal in the white crate.

Harbor seal in crate for transport.

Gray seal in crate for transport.

Wake of the "Heiser" en route to Duck Island. The Wentworth Hotel is just visible on the horizon.

The weather worked out very well for the trip. It was extremely hot at the dock in Portsmouth, near 90 with little wind, but outside the harbor it quickly cooled off and we remained in sunny but hazy conditions until the return, when we passed through a brief shower in advance of an approaching cold front.

Spraying a seal with water for cooling. This seal went along for the ride, because it was too hot for the Maine DMR staff to leave it on shore and it was not ready for release.

Duck Island crowned with green vegetation in the background, with surrounding ledges in the foreground.

Seals basking on ledges, eyeballing our activity. Our vessel kept far enough from any basking seals so that they were not startled into entering the water.

Mystic staff, Reed Cass and Ainsley Smith, prepare to release the gray seal. It disappeared immediately on entering the water.

The harbor seal pops up after release to look at us.

The harbor seal looks back one last time.

Departing Duck Island we look back at Mingo Rock, the easiest ledge to identify because of its rounded shape, because it stands apart to the east of Duck Island, and because it often has waves breaking on it. (taken on an earlier seal release in September, 2008)

Other articles in our occasional coverage of the Isles of Shoals include:

September, 2009