A Sunday Morning Seal Walk At Sandy Hook

Want to see some seals resting along the shore this winter. There is no need to drive up to Long Island or Cape Cod, not when you have the rich local waters of Lower New York Bay, including Sandy Hook Bay.

Last Sunday, naturalists with the National Park Service at Sandy Hook held a seal walk and a number of Harbor Seals were seen, including a few playful young seals swimming in the water and moving about on the beach. A few adults were even spotted sunning themselves on land in a distinctive “banana” shaped position. It was truly a memorable experience, occurring downstream from New York City.  

All seals are federally protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which limits how closely anyone can approach them, either by boat or by foot. So knowledgeable people brought binoculars, spotting scopes and cameras with high-quality lenses  to get a good view of the seals. The park system also had a number of spotting scopes on hand, so everyone could get a look at the seals.

Situated in Sandy Hook Bay, the tip of Skeleton Hill Island has the unique advantage of being the winter host of many restful and weary Harbor Seals.  The seals arrive usually sometime in December from their breeding areas up in northern New England and southern Canada, including Arcadia and Nova Scotia, to find a safe and secure remote beach or sandbar to rest and relax.

These long-established "haul-out" sites are important places for the Harbor Seals. They need to come out of the water almost daily to warm up. Unlike other marine mammals, such as walruses, many species of seals cannot maintain their body temperature if they stay in cold water all the time owing to their smaller size and thinner blubber layer.

Without safe places for seals to haul-out of the water to rest, reheat, and digest their food (particularly important since Harbor Seals usually swallow their food whole after being torn into chunks), they could get sick, exhausted, or stressed out. In addition, quite a few seals observed each winter are pregnant females due to give birth next spring. They too are seeking safe places to rest and feed before returning up north to have their pups.

During the day, the seals will mostly sleep and take it easy. At night or during flood tides, Harbor Seals will be busy foraging for food. The seals are fish eaters, and will use their long whiskers as a sensor to help follow and track fish in the water, including flounders, sculpins, and sand eels. They can also eat invertebrates such as clams, crabs, and even offshore squids.

Seeing seals in Sandy Hook Bay is a remarkable experience. It quickly reminds people just how connected we are to the Atlantic Ocean, New England, and Canada; and how important habitat or home our tidal waters have become once more for marine mammals.

Over twenty years ago, seals were almost never seen in New York Harbor. Now waters are cleaner, populations of certain fish are starting to rebound, and the number of seals have increased to the point that a casual beachgoer can spot a seal resting on a beach. It helps as well that Congress in 1972 passed  the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibited the killing or harassment of any wild seal. In the 1900s, people hunted Harbor Seals in New York and New England for their fur and meat; and by fishermen who wrongly viewed the seals as competitors for fish. Hunting was so extensive that many Harbor Seals abandoned traditional haul-out areas, including New York Harbor.

Today, the news is still not all that good for the seals. Habitat loss, human disturbance, and marine debris are major threats. Harbor Seals need safe places to rest and relax, which is not always easy in New York Harbor. If too many people and boats are nearby or if just one person  tries to get too close, usually around 300 feet, Harbor seals will become stressed out and swim away.  Too many disturbances and seals may abandon a haul-out site permanently. Seals can also become entangled in fishing nets and gear or plastic materials, causing severe injury or drowning. Harbor seals may also ingest plastic debris, which can cause starvation or obstructions in the digestive tract.

If you see a seal that appears injured, entangled, sick, or being harassed by a person, in New Jersey call the Marine Mammal Stranding Center at  609-266-0538. In New York, call the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation at 631-369-9829.  These two organizations have the authority to help stranded or sick marine mammals and sea turtles. Wildlife experts with the help of trained volunteers will determine if an animal is in need of medical attention, needs to be moved from a populated area, or just needs time to rest.

When watching seals, stay back at least 500 feet in order to prevent unnecessary stress and abandonment of important basking sites. Without safe places to rest and digest their food, the seals will get sick and abandon the harbor.

If you wish to see seals and other wildlife of New York Harbor safely, please consider attending a boat ride with New York City Audubon. Tours start on Sunday, January 12 and run through March 9. Tour leaders with NYC Audubon will seek out wintering Harbor Seals as well as loons, sea ducks, and sandpipers that have traveled from the far north to find refuge in the harbor. Complimentary hot cocoa and tea included! Tours are now scheduled to run from 12-2pm and will leave from South Street Seaport. Click here to learn more and register.

For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Lou February 11, 2014 at 07:08 AM
I never knew!!


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