Unusual visitor is 7.5 feet long and weighs about 300 pounds.

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Canadian hooded seal makes a surprise appearance at the Boston Yacht Club

Canadian hooded seal naps during a surprise appearance at the Boston Yacht Club

Canadian hooded seal checks out the locals during a surprise appearance at the Boston Yacht Club

Canadian hooded seal inflates his snout during a surprise appearance at the Boston Yacht Club

Canadian hooded seal inflates his snout during a surprise appearance at the Boston Yacht Club

Photos: Dana Williams

Boston, MA - July 7, 2007
Boaters in Marblehead have been expecting many Canadian entries for the start of a three day yacht race to Nova Scotia that launches this Sunday, but Thursday they had an uninvited and very large Canadian guest who arrived early for the big event.

At about 1 p.m., a seven and a half foot hooded seal probably weighing around 300 pounds hauled out on a float at the Boston Yacht Club. The male hooded seal took a snooze in the crowded marina for about 45 minutes. New England Aquarium staff were able to identify its species and gender due to the animal's distinctive loose skin about its snout that it can blow up to the size of a volleyball when it feels threatened or dominant.

The yacht club members handled the burly and potentially cantankerous guest with respect and savvy. Dana Williams, the club's official photographer, said that members used a boat to keep other vessels from pulling up to the float and then also called the Marblehead animal control officer who limited access from the landward side. After a stay of less than an hour, the seal appeared satisfied with the race preparations and slipped away into the water. On Friday, the same animal was seen in Boston Harbor more than ten miles to the south in both Hingham and Quincy. Williams later wrote in an e-mail, "I am glad that he is not in Marblehead as there will be thousands of boats on the water to watch the start (of Sunday's race).... We wish him safe passage home."

Biologists with the New England Aquarium's Marine Animal Rescue team, which is sponsored by Sovereign Bank, have been monitoring the large seal's movements. Aquarium staff are both fascinated and concerned. Adult hooded seals are rare visitors to Masschusetts waters, and when they are here it is almost always in the winter. Juvenile hooded seals that weigh from 50 to 75 pounds are regular wintertime visitors, but an adult hooded seal in the summer is a double exception to the rule.

Hooded seals are normally found off the Maritime Provinces of Canada and are the largest seal in the western Atlantic with full sized males weighing over 800 pounds. This particular male is most likely a young adult or an undersized adult in poor health or having difficulty foraging.

In 2004, the Aquarium's Marine Animal Rescue Team collected a lethargic, very ill adult male hooded seal in the Duxbury Marsh on St. Patrick's Day. Named Artie in honor of Arthur Guiness, the Irish brewer, that animal came to the Aquarium at an emaciated 338 pounds. He was later released with an additional 350 pounds in tow and a high tech satellite transmitter glued to the back of its neck. That device's GPS function showed that Artie swam directly across the Gulf of Maine to Nova Scotia in just three days, which would be a good time for this weekend's yachts. The transmitter surprisingly worked for nearly six months tracking Artie's movements throughout eastern Canada over the winter. The data was invaluable to wildlife biologists.

Aquarium officials want to emphasize the importance of maintaining safe distances from seals. Such practices provide safety for both people and the seals, and federal law requires it. The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits the harassment of seals, dolphins and whales. Seals which regularly haul out of the water for rest or nursing are often mistaken by people as being in distress. Being out of the water is normal behavior for seals. Common but unsafe or illegal human behaviors around seals include approaching too close, feeding, making loud noises, or throwing objects at them. Seals can get stressed out by unwanted human attention, which can compromise their health. Seals also do bite.

If unsure of the condition of a seal, call the Aquarium's Stranding Hotline at 617-973-5247.