When it comes to marine animals that are on the shore, the rules are similar to those of a museum: Look, but don't touch.
Unlike in a museum, people (and pets) should stay at least 100 yards away from even the cutest baby animals, like seal pups, even if they appear to have been abandoned on the beach.
The most common time for pups to be born in the San Juan Islands and East Puget Sound region is from late June to September.
Seal pups sit on rocks and shorelines on a regular basis to rest and regulate their body temperature, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Some research has shown seals will leave their pups alone on shores when human disturbance has scared the mother off, said Mariann Carrasco, principal investigator with the Whatcom Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
"It doesn't take much to scare (mother seals) off," Carrasco said. "They will come back at night and get the pups when there are no people, dogs or kids around."
Oftentimes, people mistakenly feel they need to pour water on a seal pup that is on the shore, feed it or bring it to shelter, but that is not the case, Carrasco said.
Touching or feeding seals, dolphins, whales, and other marine life can interfere with their natural behavior patterns, make them less wary of humans or boats, and potentially make them sick, according to NOAA.
In mid-October 2013, visitors near Drayton Harbor saw a seal pup and became concerned. They put water on the baby seal, picked her up and, in the process of carrying her around, dropped her on some barnacles, giving her a gash and putting her life in danger, said Cindy Brandenburger, a volunteer with the marine stranding network and owner of Blaine's A Sweet Country Kennel.
It is illegal to touch, feed or even get too close to marine wildlife. Those who violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act can be fined up to $11,000 in civil penalties, get up to a year in prison, and/or forfeit any vessel involved, which could include penalties up to $25,000, according to NOAA.
The seal that was harassed near Drayton Harbor was treated by some marine mammal stranding volunteers, fed and returned to the water a few hours later.
"When we took her back, she was so excited," Brandenburger said. "When she smelled the water, her nose and whiskers were going and she wiggled out of the crate and started splashing with her little flippers."
To report an animal that may be abandoned or injured, stay back and call the local network at 360-966-8845 or 866-767-6114.
For more information about interacting with marine animals, go to nmfs.noaa.gov and search "Responsible Marine Wildlife Viewing," or visit the Whatcom Marine Mammal Stranding Network website at wmmsn.org.
Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-715-2274 or Samantha.Wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.