I was playing in the sand with my girls when we got the call from my dad, alerting us to a stranded seal pup. We headed down the beach with great curiosity to find a small crowd gathered around a small seal. He was rolled over onto his side and breathing quite irregularly. And, the tide was on its way out.

A woman there let us know that one of the homeowners along the beach had called the Maine Marine Animal Reporting Hotline to let them know. But, when I arrived, everyone was in a quandary about what to do.

Yes, I am a marine biologist, but lobsters and seals have little in common except that they both live in the same ocean. My first thought, beyond making sure someone had called the real experts, was that the tide was going out and this seal was going to be here for a long time.

Seals are mammals and therefore air breathers, so we didn’t have to worry about him not being able to breathe, but overheating could be a concern. So, a team of worker bee children and parents built a channel down to the water and dug out a shallow area around him to keep him moist and cool.

I looked him over while trying not to get too close to see if there were any obvious wounds or entanglements. My dad pointed out a series of bands on his fur that could have been the result of being wrapped up in a rope. But there were no cuts that we could see.

A passerby relayed the story of a similar event she’d witnessed and been told that seal pups regularly rest on the beach and should be left undisturbed and not to worry. But, the pup’s breathing and position seemed labored and awkward, so I was worried.

Shortly after, the homeowner who called the rescue line received a return call confirming that we ought to let the seal rest and give it plenty of space. So, we drew a line in the sand 150 feet around it and one of the little girls made signs to alert passersby not to disturb the pup. We took turns standing guard for awhile, but then returned home and hoped for the best.

Unfortunately, the story ends sadly. Later that evening we found him still on the beach but no longer breathing. What more could we have done?

I started by researching seal pup behavior a bit to learn more about what they are doing at this time of year. It turns out that this is weaning season. The pups are typically born in late spring and nurse for a month or more before they learn to catch fish. Often they aren’t so great at it at first and get tired with all the swimming and trying and might find themselves napping on a beach for awhile. And, sometimes in their hunt for food, they get separated from their mother. Or, the mother may leave the pup to rest while she hunts for food. One of the reasons to leave a stranded pup alone is that a mother returning to look for her pup can be scared away by a crowd.

So, here’s the protocol according to Marine Mammals of Maine. Give them a call first at 1-800-532-9551. This could be for any marine mammal, including porpoises, whales, dolphins, seals, and also sea turtles. MMoME is a network of two full-time staff and 70 volunteers from Rockland to Kittery, covering over 2,500 miles of coastline including the islands. They have a triage center in Harpswell where they can temporarily hold animals and then either release them or transport them to the rehab center in Essex, Massachusetts.

Then, DO NOT disturb the animal. Remain at least 150 feet away and help keep other people and especially dogs away, as well. In fact, due to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, it is illegal to touch or harass marine mammals. Then, you either wait for a rescuer to come or for the animal to make its way back to the water on its own.

My girls decided they wanted to train to be rescuers and I agreed that was a terrific idea – except that you have to be 18 years or older. BUT, there are still many things that you can do to help. For one, there’s a great downloadable poster that lists Do’s and Don’ts if you find a stranded animal. You could print these out and pass them out to your neighbors if you live along a beach.

Or, you can support MMoME by donating directly to them or buying cool gear from their website. There are several fundraising events you can participate in, as well – a pup shower in the spring ahead of the pup season, which is held at the Harpswell Triage Center, and the Ocean Commotion 5K at Hermit Island in Phippsburg coming up on Oct. 14. For more information, visit www.mmome.org.

It’s a wonderful thing to see these animals along our coast – populations that have rebounded since the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, and it is important to understand how we can help them continue to thrive.