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A Community Comes Together for a Gray Seal

September 15, 2023

A gray seal that showed up in a Beverly, Massachusetts pond quickly won over the town’s hearts during his week-long stay before officials relocated him.

gray seal pokes its head out of the water Gray seal swimming in a Beverly, Massachusetts pond. Photo Credit: Seacoast Science Center

Welcome to Beverly, Massachusetts

On September 15, NOAA stranding staff was alerted that a seal was swimming in Shoe Pond in the Cummings Center office park in Beverly, Massachusetts. We determined that it was a gray seal. Although it’s an unusual location, the pond connects to Beverly Harbor through a 250-yard-long cement tunnel that empties into the Bass River. It’s not unusual for seals to follow fish into shallower waters, including rivers—in 2019 a harbor seal swam up the Connecticut River to Holyoke, Massachusetts. 

Working with the Beverly Animal Control Officers, our staff visited the pond over the next few days. We observed the seal, evaluated its health, and gathered information about its behavior. The seal hauled out on the wall in front of the exit tunnel several times, so we knew it could leave the area when it was ready. Cummings Center staff opened the dam gate on September 18, and the seal briefly swam towards the exit, then hopped right back into the pond! 

Give Seals Space sign on pond's shoreside
View of Shoe Pond. Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries

On the Move! 

Overnight on September 19, the seal moved from the lower saltwater pond into the larger upper pond that is freshwater. Beverly residents were visiting the office park often to check up on the seal and its well-being, affectionately referring to the seal as “Shoebert.” Given that seals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, our staff took this opportunity to provide a seal 101 for visitors. We reminded everyone to maintain the safe wildlife viewing distance of 150 feet or more. Our goal was to ensure the safety and well-being of the seal, responders, and the public. Since there were no barriers to the seal leaving on its own, we wanted to give it a chance to do so before we intervened.

As we approached the 1-week mark, the seal showed no signs of exiting the pond on its own. Ultimately we decided to take action—it would be best to get the seal back to a more suitable seal habitat. Seals can live in freshwater for short periods as long as there are fish to eat, but really, they belong in the ocean. In this case, we were concerned that the seal might leave the pond and go into parking lots or on roads and get injured. Gray seals can also be aggressive, so the longer it was in the pond, the more likely there would be an interaction between the seal and people.

Planning for Rescue

On Wednesday, September 21, staff began to collect more information about the bottom conditions of the pond and observe how the seal would react to a boat. This information would help response teams plan for the rescue. The Cummings Center provided NOAA staff with a rowboat, and we learned that the seal was very curious and would follow the boat. Beverly Fire Department sent two divers into the water to check for any obstructions that could harm the seal or snag nets during a rescue attempt. We relayed this information to our stranding partners who were assisting with this response. These dedicated teams planned to travel from three states on Thursday morning to assist us NOAA with assessing suitable rescue options.

team watching gray seal from the shore in the rain
Officials observing the seal on Thursday. Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries

As the teams were in transit on Thursday morning, we began getting calls that the seal had hauled out on the sidewalk near the Cummings Center parking lot. It was on the grass not far from a busy road. Our plans for the day quickly changed from observing the seal to preventing the seal from encountering people or cars. Stranding partners included the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Seacoast Science Center Marine Mammal Rescue, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and Mystic Aquarium. They joined our staff and local authorities, hoping to take advantage of the seal’s behavior and safely capture it while it was on land.

Despite periods of heavy rain, teams attempted several rescues of the seal. We first sent out the boat unattended, and slowly pulled it to shore, hoping the seal would follow. Other attempts involved a Beverly firefighter and stranding network partners rowing the boat to different locations throughout the pond. We hoped to entice it to quieter locations, or to net it as it approached the boat. Each time, the seal showed interest, but remained just out of reach of the rescue teams.

As it grew dark, we decided to end operations for the day, to keep everyone safe. We knew that the seal was changing its behavior and trying to haul out more often. We left a large collection of gear at a NOAA team member’s house nearby: two large kennels, nets on long poles, and herding boards. Team members from IFAW and Mystic Aquarium stayed nearby overnight, planning to reassess the situation on Friday.

Early Morning Wake Up Call

The seal's stay ended in the early morning hours of Friday, September 23, a little more than a week since it began. At 2:30 a.m. Beverly Police Department officers were alerted by Cummings Center security that the seal was outside their office on the lawn, having navigated a significant journey across an empty parking lot. Acting quickly, the police, fire, and animal control staff used tables to prevent the seal from leaving the parking lot while stranding teams and safety gear arrived on scene. The NOAA team was on scene next and, using herding boards, circled the seal and corralled it safely into the kennel. Shortly after, IFAW staff arrived and the group transferred the seal into the large wooden kennel for safe transport down to Mystic Aquarium. 

Mystic Aquarium staff collected the seal and transported it to their animal rescue clinic for a health assessment. There are only a few options for seal rehabilitation in New England. Although closer than Connecticut, the New England Aquarium in Boston no longer rescues or rehabilitates seals. So the seal headed to Mystic Aquarium because they have the space for a seal of this size.

group of people around animal rescue kennel
Team in the early morning. Photo Credit: Beverly Animal Control

Clean Bill of Health

The seal had a yellow tag on its rear flipper, indicating that it had been previously rehabilitated and released. We were able to match the spots and scar on his face with a known case and identify it as a male roughly 4-5 years old. He had previously stranded on Cape Cod with extensive injuries to his face and hind flippers. IFAW rescued him, provided initial treatment, and transferred him to Mystic Aquarium for longer term care. They released him in August 2018, after 4 months of rehabilitation for a bone infection and removing one hind digit. 

After arriving at Mystic Aquarium from Beverly, veterinarians performed a complete health assessment and physical examination, which included X-rays and bloodwork. He appeared healthy based on this exam and weighed 235 pounds. He stayed at Mystic Aquarium for a few days while plans were made to release him off the Rhode Island coast in a known gray seal habitat. The goal was to give him access to open water so that he can choose where to go and be able to find the appropriate food resources.

New Home

On Monday, September 26, the seal was satellite tagged in preparation for release. This tag may work for several weeks or months, and will fall off by the time he molts or sheds his fur. The seal was released back to the wild on Tuesday, September 27. Gray seals can travel great distances, often traveling from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia in a matter of days. It will be fun to see where he decides to travel to next! Check back for updates on his travels. 

Team members carry the seal to the waves for release
Mystic Aquarium team preparing for a safe release. Photo Credit: Mystic Aquarium

October 5 Update

After his release last week the seal spent some time on Cape Cod before traveling north again. He was last tracked swimming around the North Shore of Massachusetts. Gray seals are often in this area during this time of year, so his presence isn’t unusual. We don’t really know how seals navigate, but we do know that they are very good at finding their way while traveling at sea, in all types of weather conditions, day and night, while spending much of their time underwater. Recent improvements in tracking technology (satellite tracking, GPS tracking) has shown that seals can travel great distances. 

1-Year Anniversary Update

 A mural of the gray seal was set up at the Cummings Center, adjacent to Shoe Pond.
A mural of the gray seal was set up at the Cummings Center, adjacent to Shoe Pond. Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries

It’s been 1 year since NOAA staff were alerted of a gray seal swimming in Shoe Pond in Beverly, Massachusetts. We helped our network partners rescue him and, after being given a clean bill of health, he was released back to the ocean. Before his release, Mystic Aquarium and Atlantic Marine Conservation Society attached a temporary satellite tag to Shoebert’s fur. His tag transmitted data for 156.5 days (pretty good considering it runs on a battery!). 

After he was released in Rhode Island, Shoebert traveled east and north back up to Beverly Harbor. NOAA staff, the Beverly Harbormaster, and Beverly Animal Control officer used his tag and were able to verify his presence there. Using binoculars, they confirmed he was exhibiting normal seal behavior and could see his satellite tag attached. 

A seal xing sign at the Cummings Center commemorates his midnight journey through the parking lot.
A seal xing sign at the Cummings Center commemorates his midnight journey through the parking lot. Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Shoebert headed south to Cape Cod in November, and visited Monomoy, Muskeget and No Man’s Island—popular Massachusetts seal haul out sites—in December. By the end of December, Shoebert was heading south towards Delaware Bay, via the Long Island Sound, New York. He arrived in Southern New Jersey and Delaware Bay around January 6, 2023. The last ping we got from his tag was on March 1, 2023, down in Delaware Bay, where we've seen an increased number of gray seals in the last few years. His impressive journey shows how well seals can navigate their environment. Where he goes next, we’ll never know, unless someone reports seeing his yellow plastic flipper tag or mischievous face again! 

Reporting Stranded Marine Life

If you see a seal on the beach, please give it space. Resting on beaches is normal seal behavior. If you think a seal is in trouble, please contact us and trained marine mammal responders will assess the situation. To report a stranded seal or other marine mammal call (866) 755-6622. 

gray seal swimming with satellite tag
Shoebert swims off after release. Photo Credit: Mystic Aquarium

Thank you to all the following organizations:

  • Cummings Center
  • Beverly Animal Control
  • Beverly Police Department
  • Beverly Fire Department and Rescue Dive Team
  • International Fund for Animal Welfare
  • Seacoast Science Center Marine Mammal Rescue
  • Whale and Dolphin Conservation
  • Mystic Aquarium
  • Atlantic Marine Conservation Society

Understanding Marine Wildlife Stranding and Response

Learn about strandings of marine mammals and sea turtles and how NOAA Fisheries and partners respond to these animals in distress.

stranding response personnel and vaquita on beach

Last updated by Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office on September 15, 2023