Beachgoers will often walk right up to seals, sea lions and sea turtles with what they think are harmless intentions — especially if they want the perfect picture or believe the animal is injured and they can help. But their actions cause more harm than they realize, marine life experts said.
Willow, a 7-month-old gray seal pup, was rehabilitated at the Wildlife Rehab Center on New York’s Long Island after getting hit by a boat. The incident left her with a fractured shoulder and deep cuts on her back.
Maxine Montello and her team at the New York Marine Rescue Center also worked to rehabilitate a male seal named Cedar, who was found with a badly infected flipper.
Volunteers Lenore McGinn and Lorraine Misciagno are helping nurse Willow and Cedar back to health.
“Oh, Cedar is a chunky monkey,” they told CBS News. “He’s cute, he comes up, he looks at you, he wants more food constantly. “Willow’s kind of quiet. The seals all definitely have their own personalities.”
Unfortunately, more animals are ending up at the rescue center, and too often, people are to blame. Boats, abandoned fishing gear and pollution are leading to injuries for dozens of seals and sea turtles. One of the biggest threats is garbage left on the beach.
“We see these entanglements, with the plastic bags, and the plastic in the waters,” the volunteers said. “They wind up in the ocean, and then the animals, unfortunately, suffer because they eat them thinking they’re food.”
Another growing problem is harassment. Last week, a viral video in San Diego caught beachgoers fleeing from two sea lions apparently competing for territory. Experts said people got too close to the animals.
In the addition, a group of people in Texas reportedly took pictures and even rode a dolphin back in April. The dolphin died.
“People want to get close, they want to get that selfie, they want to touch that animal,” Montello said. “If you do see them, enjoy from afar.”
Even well-intentioned people who think they’re helping can make things worse. After Willow was injured, a good Samaritan picked her up and put her in his truck to drive her to a veterinarian.
“He wasn’t trying to hurt this animal, but picking these animals up is illegal, Montello said. “They’re federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”
If you’re at the beach and see a beached or injured animal, marine wildlife experts recommend calling the nearest rescue center. While CBS News witnessed a bystander doing just that — they called to report a badly injured sea turtle.
The team said it was able to save it thanks to the call.
“This is a Kemps Ridley sea turtle, they’re one of the most critically endangered sea turtles, so we really appreciate you guys calling,” biologist Victoria Gluck said to the bystander.
Meanwhile, Willow and Cedar are healing nicely and they’ve both put on 30 pounds. Now, Montello said, it’s time for them to go home.
The pair got their final checkup, were weighed, swabbed to check for diseases and had their blood drawn. After starting the summer in a rehab facility, it was time for them to return to the wild.
Cedar went first and seemed all too grateful to be back in the water. But Willow was nervous and for a moment, it seemed like she wouldn’t go. Eventually, she headed into the water.
“This is the best part of the job. All our hard work paid off. It’s our goal is to get them back into the wild to return them home,” Montello said.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act recommends people stay at least 150 feet away from any wildlife.