A special visitor made a splash when it decided to take a break from swimming at the beach in Ponte Vedra on Monday, Feb. 8.
A juvenile harbor seal was an unexpected sight as it made its way along the beach, scurrying away from the rising tide as it tried to get some R&R before heading back out to sea.
Nancy Kablach Condron, with the Ponte Vedra Sea Turtle Patrol, was informed about the unusual guest. She headed to the beach about a mile north of Mickler’s Landing to offer assistance. Condron put up stakes to cordon off the area where the seal was attempting to rest.
“It was really cool to watch it,” Condron said. “Some of my turtle patrol people came out and we educated a lot of people on the beach and it was a good experience. People were very respectful. We have a very well educated, responsible beach here.”
While seals on Florida beaches is not a common sight, it isn’t unheard of. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, although rare, seals do occasionally make the trek this far south.
“They’re always pups, so they were probably born within the past year,” Condron said of the area’s rare seal visitors. “They’re just looking for food on their own and they just wandered down here.”
According to the FWC, juvenile harbor seals are solitary, independent creatures, so they tend to travel alone at this age.
According to the NOAA, harbor seals generally live in temperate coastal habitats along the northern coasts of North America, Europe and Asia. They occur on the U.S East and West coasts, but rarely travel this far South.
As for the seal who visited Ponte Vedra Beach, it spent most of the day relaxing and trying to trying to escape the tide.
“As the tide came up, he (or she) would scoot up the beach,” Condron said. “We moved stakes three-to-four times as he moved up the beach until we were sure he wouldn’t exit the area. But he kept moving up as the water came up and the last time we saw, he moved way up. I think he was tired of being interrupted by the water.”
Condron said the seal spent most of its time sleeping and doing “yoga poses,” by lifting its head and tail up at the same time.
While the sight of a seal in Ponte Vedra caught Condron by surprise, she was even more surprised at the response her videos and photos received. The seal became a social media sensation with the story, photos and video shared across the globe.
“This kind of shocked me,” Condron said of the response. She even saw where someone took one of her seal photos and added the popular Bernie Sanders-in-mittens meme to it.
“I wanted to spread the word so in case this ever happens again, people would know what to do; to stay back and call the experts,” Condron said about her videos and social media posts. “My only intent was to get people to do the right thing because nobody knows. In Florida, we don’t have marine animals that come out of the water just to bask. If any of our normal animals come out for any reason, other than a nesting turtle, there’s something wrong with the animal. If it’s a dolphin or whale and it beaches, there’s something wrong with it, so people assumed there was something wrong with the seal, but there wasn’t. We’re not used to that down here.”
After officials from the FWC left, Condron, along with a St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office deputy, took turns keeping an eye on the seal. Condron checked on the seal around 6:30 p.m. Monday and it was still doing fine. When she returned around 5 a.m. Tuesday, the visitor was gone.
“There was a report of a sighting of her off Amelia Island the day before, so we believe she was heading south,” Condron said.
Condron said if the rare visitors or others like it should return to area beaches, the best thing to do is call the FWC and get someone out there and try to keep people back around 50 yards until FWC officials arrive.
“The seal is coming out of the water to rest, and if people are getting too close to her, she’s not going to be able to rest,” Condron said. “As a matter of fact, it will probably stress them out.”
But Condron was happy she was there to witness the rare sight.
“I was so glad I was home to be able to bring the stakes and to see it,” she said.