Ashley Stokes | SSC Marine Mammal Rescue Director
Our Marine Mammal Rescue team is called to all kinds of animal situations but not all of them make the national news. In September, SSC Marine Mammal Rescue was involved in a response effort in Massachusetts that grabbed the attention of people from across New England and around the world. A sub-adult male gray seal nicknamed “Shoebert” took up residence in a pond and it took a village to get him back out into the ocean where he belongs.
On September 15, the marine mammal stranding staff at NOAA was notified of a seal swimming in Shoe Pond in Beverly, MA. It was unusual to see a seal there but since this saltwater pond connects to Beverly Harbor via a tunnel, there was no mystery as to how the animal got in. The bigger problem was coaxing the seal back out, because although there was no immediate threat to his survival, the pond would likely freeze over the winter. NOAA began monitoring the animal along with Beverly Animal Control, and as stranding network partners, we were put on notice. This location is just outside our territory but we always help out in other areas if requested. We sent a staff member out to the location to begin to familiarize ourselves with the area, evaluate response and rescue options if needed, and capture some photos of the animal.
The seal began attracting a lot of attention from the public: he’d been given the nickname Shoebert. Residents were posting about him on social media and people were flocking to the pond to catch a glimpse. Gray seals can be an aggressive species and officials were concerned about potential adverse human interaction if someone tried to get too close.
As the one-week mark approached with the seal showing no sign of heading back to the ocean on its own, officials began making a plan to move the seal out of the pond. NOAA reached out to us as well as the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and Mystic Aquarium. Our agencies were asked to convene at the site to help NOAA assess options for rescue and transport and we planned a reconnaissance mission for the next morning, to come up with a plan.
But Shoebert threw a wrench in things the morning we arrived by hauling out of the pond, which is located in a busy office park, before appropriate rescue equipment was onsite! We heard he had also been out by the parking lot earlier the same morning. The public was kept away from the animal and he retreated to the water after a short time. What started as reconnaissance, turned into trying some different rescue options. Our hope was that Shoebert would haul out again, and be able to opportunistically be captured on land, but he ultimately stayed just out of reach of our teams. As darkness fell, operations ended for the day but some response equipment was kept nearby.
Overnight, Shoebert had his own ideas, which we thought may happen. At 2:30am, Beverly Police were notified that the seal was spotted by a parking lot outside the Cummings Center office park. Officials worked quickly to put up barriers to prevent the seal from leaving the area. When NOAA staff arrived, they used herder boards to circle the seal and corral it safely into a waiting kennel. The seal was later transferred into a larger kennel and transported to Mystic Aquarium for a physical assessment. After a couple of days, he was ultimately deemed healthy, was outfitted with a satellite tag to track future movements, and was then released into the ocean off Block Island.
Here is a link to NOAA’s full account of the Shoebert response.