An emaciated harbor seal pup found stranded on an Ocean City beach just before Saturday's northeaster was fighting for its life today at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
"She continues to be in very poor shape," said David Schofield, the aquarium's marine mammal stranding coordinator.
Weighing barely 37 pounds, the 7-month-old female is being fed fluids and fish gruel through a stomach tube, and her breathing was described as "labored."
"We're not sure what's wrong with her," Schofield said. "She appears to have an eye infection, possible bacterial infections and viral infections." There also are injuries to her right rear flipper and right side, perhaps the result of scuffles with other seals, or attacks by large predators, such as sharks.
The seal's precarious condition contrasts with that of another young female harbor seal found stranded on a Virginia beach Dec. 29 and brought to Baltimore for care.
Schofield said that pup is consuming 8 to 12 pounds of fish a day, gaining weight and fending off human contact.
"She's snapping and snarling," he said. "It's detrimental to us, but nevertheless a sign we like to see."
Both animals are being cared for in a backstage isolation area at the aquarium where two other young seals were cared for after similar strandings last January. One was later released off Cape Cod; the second failed to respond to treatments and was destroyed in April.
The latest strandling to be taken in by the National Aquarium was found Friday on an Ocean City beach. Humane Society personnel and Department of Natural Resources police held her until Schofield and his staff picked her up early Saturday and trucked her back to Baltimore.
Mammalogists aren't sure why the harbor seal pups are stranding here at this time of year. Most harbor seal populations are found from Massachusetts northward.
"In the last couple years we have seen their range expanding down in this area. The numbers show they they are increasing. But we don't know if it's food availability or what," Schofield said.
Young seals probably strand at this time of year because it is the onset of winter, when environmental stresses are increasing for the first time.
"We see a see certain amount of attrition because maybe they're not hardy enough to make the seasonal change, or fast enough to keep up, and the environment weeds them out," he said.
The approaching northeaster probably did not cause the Ocean City stranding but may have hastened it, he said.