SEATTLE — A ribbon seal commonly found in the frigid waters off the coasts of Alaska and Russia has been spotted twice in the Seattle area.
It's quite unusual to observe the animals this far south, said Peter Boveng, leader of the polar ecosystem program with the National Marine Mammal Laboratory, part of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. "There are not many people who see these regularly."
The ribbon seal, likely a young adult male, appears to be in good shape, though not as fat as expected, said Boveng.
The seal first showed up one morning earlier this month on the dock of a Seattle woman, who lives about a mile up the Duwamish River south of downtown.
Then last Friday, it was spotted on a snow-covered dock in Marysville, about 35 miles north of Seattle. A snow and ice storm had hit the state, leaving snow piled high in many parts of the region.
"It was just resting and it was fairly alert and active. It was responsive. It looked up at me several times," said Kristin Wilkinson, a marine mammal stranding specialist with NOAA Fisheries, who photographed the animal Friday.
A Marysville city parks and recreation employee reported the seal sighting. Wilkinson encouraged others to call the network to report sightings of the seal.
"It looked to be in good condition with no obvious wounds or injuries, other than that it's out of it usual habitat," Wilkinson said Monday.
Wilkinson and others from state, federal and local agencies observed the seal for about an hour. When she returned Friday around 1 p.m., the seal had left.
"I'm guessing it's probably still out there somewhere," said Boveng, who has tracked the animals using satellite tags. He was in Alaska last week when the seal made its second appearance. It's possible that the seal could swim out and find its way back, or "just hang out and succumb to stresses in not being in a place where it's designed to make a living," he said.
Ribbon seals inhabit the northern North Pacific Ocean and sub-Arctic and Arctic seas. They are found in the Bering and Chukchi seas off Alaska and the Sea of Okhotsk off Russia. They have distinctive white bands or ribbons that encircle the head, base of the trunk and two front flippers over a dark coat.
Federal biologists estimate the population at about 200,000 globally with a Bering Sea population of 100,000 or more. During summer and fall, ribbon seals live entirely in the water, foraging on fish, squid and crustaceans. From March through June, the seals rely on loose pack ice in the Bering and Okhotsk seas for reproduction and molting, and as a platform for foraging.
The animals have and nurse their young on sea ice. When the ice melts away in the summer and fall months, they appear to disperse widely throughout the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean and even up to the Arctic Ocean, Boveng said.
NOAA's Fisheries Service announced last month that it is reviewing the status of the ribbon seal to determine whether the species should be protected under the Endangered Species Act. The agency determined in 2008 that the seals didn't warrant protection. It said last month that it had new data on ribbon seal movements and diving.
Ribbon seals aren't known for coming ashore, which makes the recent adventures on docks in Puget Sound all that more unusual.
Boveng said not every sighting would necessarily get reported, but the last one was in the mid-1960s when a ribbon seal appeared on a beach near Morro Bay, Calif.
The woman who spotted the ribbon seal on her Seattle deck earlier this month reported it to Matthew Cleland, district supervisor for western Washington for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services. He said she declined to be named or contacted.
"It hauled out on her dock and slept for a while and disappeared again," he said.
"At the time I had no idea what it was," he said, adding that he consulted his manuals. "It's a pretty unique species that was easily identified."
NOAA Northwest Region Marine Mammal Stranding Network: http://1.usa.gov/A6GNTn