Hike to the overlook above Grandma's Cove in American Camp and look down. You may see one or more Pacific Harbor seals sunning on the rocks or lolling in the water, heads up like periscopes. A closer look will reveal whiskers beaded like strings of pearls.
Everyone loves these doe-eyed seals, the most common marine mammals in the San Juan Islands. Even cuter are the pups, which you may see from late June through August.
With their silvery coats and dark spots, you can see them propel their bodies through the water with strong, rear flippers, steering with their foreflippers. On land, they drag their rear flippers behind their bodies and crawl on their bellies.
You'll often see them hauled out on rocks or sandy and rocky beaches where they sun and sleep. This allows them to quickly roll into the water if threatened. They also float vertically just above the seafloor, sinking below the surface when alarmed.
They spend most of their days diving from 30 to 500 feet and feeding on a variety of fish, crustaceans, and squid. Playful, shy, and curious, they'll swim close to boats or shore to get a good look at you, and have been known to nip at the snorkels and fins of divers. Solitary at sea, they're gregarious during molting season. Sometimes they sleep on the seafloor, drifting with the currents and rising periodically for a breath.
If you see a seal pup on the beach, steer clear and contact the visitor center immediately. Females commonly park a pup for up to 24 hours while out foraging for food. If a well-meaning visitor is curious and approaches the pup thinking it's in danger, the pup may get stressed and dehydrated, and the mother may be frightened off as well.
Whether you're onshore, in a kayak or boat, please stay 100 yards away from haul-out sites. According to Amy Traxler of the San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network, "if even one seal acknowledges your presence by picking up its head and looking at you, you're too close," she said. "Slowly back up and leave the area. If you don't, you could cause a stampede that may separate little pups from their moms."
Did You Know?
American Camp's Officers' Quarters, built in 1859-1860, is the oldest structure on San Juan Island. It may have once been home to Capt. George E. Pickett of Civil War fame.