An employee of Saumon Gaspé (Translator’s note: a salmon fishing outfitter) was in for a surprise on Tuesday morning as he headed to his office at the mouth of the York River, crossing paths with an enormous white seal with black speckles, surrounded by a few curious by-standers standing less than 10 metres from the animal. He thought it was a gray seal, given the pinniped’s impressive size. After receiving photos, the Marine Mammal Emergencies call centre confirmed, with the collaboration of marine mammal specialists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, that it was a hooded seal. A rare visitor for this region! Surprisingly aggressive for a seal, this marine mammal is imposing: males can exceed 3 metres in length and can tip the scales at over 400 kilos. The female is about 2 metres long and weighs in at around 150 kilos. A DFO biologist added that this was “an opportunity to remind witnesses that seals are wild animals and that we should avoid getting too close. Hooded seals may be more aggressive than other species,” he explained. The instructions were quickly transmitted to the witness, who went to the site to inform curious onlookers. The animal finally returned to the St. Lawrence as the “messenger” approached.

Phoque à capuchon adulte © Marie-Ève Bernatchez
Adult hooded seal © Marie-Ève Bernatchez

Early Wednesday morning, new images were circulating on the social networks. The hooded seal had probably returned to the shores of Gaspé Bay. The seal seemed to be in good physical condition and alert, growling whenever locals approached.

Two days later, a call was made late in the evening to 1-877-7baleine. The mayor of the municipality of Saint-Fabien in the Bas-Saint-Laurent region had managed an exceptionally problematic situation. According to accounts, a huge seal lay on the main road, growling at anybody who tried to get too close. Sureté du Québec (SQ) quickly dispatched responders to escort the pinniped, which took a long pause on the road shoulder. SQ officers managed to coax it to the water’s edge. Once again, it was an adult hooded seal.

Migrating northern seals

Jeune phoque à capuchon (dos bleu) à Longueuil, 2014 © Yannick Mallette
Young hooded seal (blue-back) in Longueuil, 2014 © Yannick Mallette

Hooded seals live in the North Atlantic and Arctic; they are winter visitors to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Only a very small proportion of adults enter the St. Lawrence Estuary, generally between December and April. In early spring, they move southward along the Maritimes to mate and give birth to their young on the pack ice. After weaning their young and breeding, adults will resume their migration north, mainly around Greenland, where they will spend the summer. The nursing period in hooded seals is the shortest of any mammal. The young are fed by their mothers for less than four days, during which time they double their birth weight of a little over 20 kilos. As for pups, a.k.a. “blue-backs”, they do not necessarily undertake the same migration as adults, and will wander through the Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence throughout the summer season. Indeed, it is not unusual to observe blue-backs on the beach in summer, and some have even reached the Montréal region.

What should you do if you observe a seal on the beach?

  • Keep your distance and do not attempt to approach within 50 metres;
  • If people are ignoring this guideline or if the seal is visibly injured, contact Marine Mammal Emergencies at 1-877-7baleine;
  • Keep in mind that these are wild animals, that they can bite and transmit diseases, and that they can be unpredictable and move quickly.
Marine Mammal Emergencies - 18/11/2016

Josiane Cabana

Josiane Cabana served as Director for the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network call centre from 2011 to 2018. When she’s not responding to cases of dead or vulnerable marine mammals, she likes to take the time to educate local residents on the threats faced by these animals. Biologist by training, she has been involved with the GREMM for more than 15 years, and always with the same undying passion!

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