We're Responding to Marine Mammal Strandings

The San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network (SJCMMSN) is a program of the Whale Museum and works under the auspices of the National Marine Fisheries Service (a division of NOAA). Our Stranding Agreement through NMFS permits staff and volunteers to investigate, collect data, and handle live and dead marine mammals within San Juan County. The Whale Museum has operated the Stranding Network since 1981. The SeaDoc Society began collaborating with the museum in 2002, and both organizations now help to run the network.

The Stranding Network works to research the marine mammals of the Salish Sea and to reduce human impact on marine mammals. We receive about 200 calls a year from the public about many species of marine mammals, including harbor seals, northern elephant seals, Stellar sea lions, California sea lions, harbor porpoises, Dall’s porpoises, and Pacific white-sided dolphins. Harbor seal pups are the most frequent animal called in. Staff and volunteers drive or boat to the location of the reported stranding, gather information on the animal, and make sure that people stay the required 100 yards away. If the animal is recently deceased, we will collect it for a necropsy (animal autopsy).

To Report a Stranding for San Juan County call 1-800-562-8832 or email hotline@whalemuseum.org

The hotline is a voicemail system that is checked frequently throughout the day. Please be sure to leave your name and phone number so we can get back to you. Information we love to know: the exact location of the animal, its species, approximate size, when you saw it, and whether it is dead or injured.

When is a marine mammal stranded? Legally, a marine mammal is stranded when it is on shore and cannot return to the water on its own. Practically this means:

Porpoises, dolphins, and whales should never be on the shore. If you see one on a beach, it is stranded. Please call it in.

Seals and sea lions frequently come on shore to rest and sleep. Please try to keep your distance (at least 100 yards). If the animal is dead or injured, or if it is in a busy public location, please call it in.

Do you want calls about dead marine mammals? Yes! We can learn a lot about an animal from its body, and we may collect it in order to conduct a necropsy (animal autopsy).

What if I see a harbor seal with a tag on its head? This seal is part of our pup tagging project, which aims to track the movement and survival of young seals. Please call in and tell us the tag number, and when and where you saw the animal.

What about strandings outside of San Juan County? Our response area is limited to San Juan County. If you have a stranding to report outside the county, or you are not sure which county you are in, call the NOAA hotline (1-866-767-6114) and you will be directed to the appropriate network.

Sharing the Shore with Marine Mammals

All marine mammals are covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which Congress passed in 1972 in order to “maintain the health and stability of the marine ecosystem.” The act acknowledges the vulnerability of marine mammals to human disturbance and makes it illegal to hunt, harass, capture, or kill any marine mammal. In addition, some marine mammals are covered by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. For more information, see these NOAA fact sheets on the MMPA and ESA.

According to these laws, all humans should stay at least 100 yards away from seals and sea lions. This includes how close dogs and boats should approach. Keep pets on a leash. Animals can become stressed and disrupted with the approach of humans. Plus, they have large teeth and can bite! If the animal starts to stare at you, fidget, or flee, you are too close.

It is also illegal to feed marine mammals. It can reduce their natural wariness of humans, increasing their risk of being injured by boats or entangled in fishing gear. To find out more about how feeding harms them, see this NOAA factsheet.

Harbor seals are particularly vulnerable to human disturbances during the pupping season (June-September in the San Juan Islands). Mother seals are sometimes separated from their pups by disturbances, and they will not return if people or dogs are nearby. Since the pups depend on milk for their first month, prolonged separations can be fatal. In addition, groups of harbor seals will sometimes “flush” into the water when disturbed by humans. Pups can be crushed or separated from their mother in the process. Please don’t be the cause of a separation: Keep your distance.

Frequently asked questions about harbor seal pups. For more detailed information see the NOAA Factsheet.

How many pups survive to adulthood? Likely less than half that are born. The Salish Sea has a healthy and stable harbor seal population, as high as the environment can naturally sustain. This means that each year many pups will not make it. The SJCMMSN follows a “let nature take its course” philosophy and will usually only consider rehabilitating a pup if it has been harmed by human interaction. Please help us respect nature’s role in mortality.

I can approach a pup very closely. Is something wrong with it? No. Young pups often have not developed a protective wariness (escape response) and will regard humans with curiosity or indifference. This does not mean it is sick or injured. However, adult seals are wary of humans and its mother will not return if people or dogs are close by. Please stay away.

Why are some harbor seal pups grey and spotted, while others are white and fluffy? The fluffy white (or yellow/grey) coat is called a lanugo coat, and is typically shed in utero before the pup is born. A pup with a lanugo coat has been born prematurely. These premature pups are particularly vulnerable and have only about a 10% survival rate. Full term pups appear gray to black with short fur and spots, similar to adults. For more information, see this NOAA factsheet on lanugo pups.


Read the recently published paper: Causes of Mortality in a Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina) Population at Equilibrium. Available here.

The SJCMMSN has two primary goals: to research the marine mammals of the Salish Sea and to reduce human impact on marine mammals. We work towards these goals in a number of ways:

  • Collecting ‘Level A’ Data: Because marine mammals spend most or all of their lives in the water, strandings are a rare and valuable opportunity to learn basic information about these creatures. For each stranding, we collect what is called ‘Level A’ data which include date, species, sex, age class, location, condition, and simple body measurements such as length and girth. These data are submitted to NOAA and stored in a national database. Through collaboration with other networks, this information gives us an idea about how populations change over time.
  • Conducting Necropsies: Recently deceased marine mammals are necropsied in order to determine age, cause of death, and other challenges the animal faced such as pollutants or chronic disease. This allows us to better understand health problems facing the population, as well as diseases that have the potential to spread to other wildlife or humans. Our necropsies are conducted at our marine mammal pathology lab at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs.
  • Pup Tagging Project: In 2011, we began a research project to tag live harbor seal pups so that we can assess and monitor their condition, track their movements, and determine their survival rate. If you see one of our tagged harbor seal pups, please report it to the hotline!
  • Providing samples to other researchers: Marine mammal samples are difficult to come by, so we share samples collected through the SJCMMSN with other permitted scientists. Researchers at labs around the United States use our data and tissue samples for a variety of investigations.
  • Recording human impact: We document evidence of direct harmful human interaction with marine mammals, such as propeller strikes and entanglement in fishing lines. NOAA uses this information in stock assessment reports and management decisions.
  • Mitigating harassment of marine mammals: Live stranded marine mammals—especially harbor seal pups—need their space. Harbor seal mothers will not return if people are around and all animals can be stressed by the presence of humans. Using volunteers, signs, barriers, and occasionally relocation, we try to keep people and their dogs at least 100 yards away, as required by law, to minimize human contact. For cases of negative human interaction (HI), we may consider collecting the animal and transporting it to Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center on San Juan Island or PAWS Wildlife Center in Seattle for treatment.
  • Educating the public: We depend on the public—both residents and visitors—to call in strandings and to be respectful of marine mammals they encounter on beaches. In addition to brochures and signs posted at beaches and public areas around the San Juans, we host informational tables at marinas during the summer season, contribute to articles in local newspapers, broadcast ourselves on social media, and send out a monthly electronic newsletter.


SJCMMSN would not be possible without the dedication of our volunteers. There are over ninety people on eight islands who volunteer their time to help us investigate strandings, educate the public, and conduct necropsies. Most of our volunteers are “on-call.” When we have a stranding in their area, we may contact them to see if they are available to investigate or assist.

If you are interested in volunteering, please call the hotline or email hotline@whalemuseum.org. Although our annual training sessions are typically in early June, we welcome people at any time of the year. We are especially looking for volunteers from Shaw, Waldron, and any other smaller island in San Juan County.


Because the Stranding Network is a program of the Whale Museum, its finances are administered through the museum. You can help support the work of the Stranding Network by making a donation to SJCMMSN on our website, Adopting an Orca, or becoming a Museum Member.


Follow us on Facebook and Instagram

General question or concern: email hotline@whalemuseum.org

Click here for the 2021 West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network Contacts for Puget Sound

Conjoined Fetal Twins in a Harbor Seal

Want to get involved, stay informed and be engaged?