One by one, since around Thanksgiving, I have been watching Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) return to Sandy Hook Bay for the winter. First I would see some sleek and shiny heads with whiskers and large black eyes bobbing in and out the water, like some smooth faced dogs of the sea. Then I would spot a few seals hauled out on a remote beach during low tide to rest, relax, and catch some rays of the sun.
Now, during the first weekend of January, I observed around 60 seals. There were males, juveniles, and pregnant females. Adult males are larger than adult females.
Many were resting or having a good sunbath on a remote island near the edge of the bay while a few others, mostly youngsters, were swimming, splashing, and keeping a watchful eye out for possible intruders, such as reckless people who regularly try to get too close to take a picture.
Seals in New York Harbor are wild animals, and a nervous bunch of marine mammals. They will repeatedly dive and swim away at the first sight or hint of trouble. It’s an alarming nature that serves them well, especially in a stressful environment like New York Harbor.
Consequently, there is no guarantee ever of seeing seals. It’s best to be prepared to be disappointed by some early morning dog walker, kayaker, large family with loud children, or by some other irresponsible person or people who unintentionally will scare away all the seals. Wild animals will always leave a place when they feel threatened.
Still, there is always hope of spotting a seal, especially if you know how to act. It’s best to keep a safe distance and to maintain a low profile. Don’t wear flashy or bright clothes, don’t run and don’t ever make noise. Keep you motions slow and steady.
My seal-spotting site was a safe distance, about 70 yards from the seals. There in the distance with the help of binoculars I could see a large pod of tired seals, resting comfortably on a cold winter’s beach with rolling surf and gusty winds blowing out of the northwest 10 to 20 mph.
Harbor seals have been arriving to this well-established haul-out site every winter for more than 10 years. Anywhere from 6 to over 160 seals at a time have been seen hauling themselves out of the bay to bask on sandy shores under the sun.
It’s not just Sandy Hook Bay either where seals can be spotted during the winter. Harbor seals also inhabit Swinburne Island, a man-made island near the Verrazano Bridge. Usually around 50 to 60 seals can be spotted resting on rocks and rip-rap along its coastline. New York Harbor is unique to have all this wildlife at two well-established haul-out sites.
Haul-out sites are important places to defend as seal habitat. Although harbor seals are adapted to living in cold waters, they must come out to rest, warm up, digest food, and dry out their coats. Without haul-out sites, seals are more likely to get exhausted and sick. At these safe havens the seals can sleep and warm-up in the safety of other seals.
Harbor seals migrate to New York Harbor starting in the fall from far-away rocky shorelines along the coast of Maine and eastern Canada. They typically arrive to New York Harbor sometime in November. More than 100 seals will swim through cold waters of the Atlantic, risking shark attacks and collisions with boat propellers, just to call the turbid waters of New York Harbor home for the next several months. One or two might even stay throughout the year to feed for fish upstream in chilly waters of the Hudson River or other nearby waterways.
Many seals, though, are highly mobile. Come spring, the seals will head back north to raise young, mate, molt, and forage for fish. Yet, hopefully these furry 200-plus pound marine mammals will return to New York Harbor. They are one of the clearest signs we have of the connection between the ocean and harbor, and an encouraging indicator of local waters getting cleaner and healthier.
The best opportunity to see seals in New York Harbor is onboard a winter boat tour offered by New York City Audubon and NY Water Taxi. Enjoy a two-hour wintry cruise out on the harbor, hot chocolate included, in search varied wildlife including waterbirds and harbor seals, which in recent years have been seen on the rocks of Swinburne Island. To register for a tour, please visit New York City Audubon’s website: http://www.nycaudubon.org.
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.
If you see a seal resting on a beach:
• Always stay at least 50 feet away.
• Never attempt to touch or handle seals as they can be aggressive if threatened.
• Seals carry diseases that can be passed on to humans and people have diseases that can make seals sick.
• Seals can and do bite, and they can move very quickly.
- Ensure you keep small children at a safe distance, and always keep dogs on a leash, under control and away from seals.
- Do not disturb seals. Don't make loud noises or throw things at them.
- Do not feed seals, as it encourages them to approach people in the future.