A small pod of Harbor seals spotted resting on a remote sandy island in New York Harbor before Thanksgiving Day. One seal, maybe a female, on the far right has a bloody cut near its neck possibly from a collision with a large ship's duct propeller.
It was a sunny, but chilly and windy Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Winds were gusting over 25 knots out of the northwest and there was an incoming tide.
Out in the distance on a sandy, skinny and remote island along the southern shore of New York Harbor were several shadowy dots. At first I thought the shapes were just driftwood or maybe small groups of gulls. I didn’t give much thought to it.
But as I was walking away to get warm and not marooned by a flood tide, a feeling deep inside was telling me to take a closer look. That gut feeling turned out to be on the button.
With a spotting scope and binoculars in hand, those shadowy spots turned out to be a dozen Harbor seals, about a thousand feet away. The fin-footed wild animals were mostly sleeping and tired, not paying any attention to my company, just the way I wanted it to be.
I was thrilled. It was my first sighting of seals in New York Harbor for the winter season 2016-17. But how many more years will I be able to enjoy this sight?
The first of hundreds of seals have begun their long annual migration to the shores of New Jersey and New York to rest and relax. Come March and early April, many of these seals will head back north to northern New England and eastern Canada to breed and raise their young. But for now these roly-poly marine mammals are seeking quite and remote beaches, piers, rocky islands, and other near-shore nautical configurations to make themselves at home until spring arrives.
When not sleeping, they will be busy foraging for food. Harbor seals are fish eaters and will use their long whiskers as a sensor to help track fish in the water, including flounders, sculpins, and sand eels. They can also eat invertebrates such as clams, crabs, and even offshore squids. Generally feeding on the abundance of potential local prey.
It’s an amazing natural event. Sightings, once few, are more common nowadays in the busy and bustling waters of New York Harbor. The reasons are varied, but mostly due to cleaner waters thanks to the Clean Water Act and better protection of wildlife thanks to both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the latter prohibits the killing or harassment of any species of seal. Congress passed these laws during the 1970s, when it seemed life was less political and people cared more about the environment compared to today.
But being a seal in New York Harbor is not stress-free. There are many troubles to avoid, some even deadly.
One of the worst is a collision with a ship’s propeller. Large tankers have sizeable sharp propellers that move fast and can slice a seal to death. With so many tankers moving offshore and within New York Harbor back and forth there are more victims every year and many whose bodies are never found.
Unfortunately, spotted with the day before Thanksgiving pod of seals In New York Harbor was one seal with a large bloody deep gash near its neck, most likely a victim of being hit by a duct propeller. Some wildlife scientists suspect seals get trapped or sucked between propellers and their covers, especially female harbor seals because ducted blades produce the same acoustics as mating calls of male seals. Ducted propellers are widely used by large ships in America.
The injured seal was lucky, at least for now. It appeared alert and was moving around fine with other seals in the pod. But an infection could occur and the seal was too far out in the water to get possible medical attention.
Which brings up another risky issue: the loss of safe places for seals to rest and relax. Long-established "haul-out" sites are important places for seals. 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 that will be due to give birth next spring. They too are seeking safe places to rest and feed before returning up north to have pups.
While haul-out sites provide people with excellent locations to view wildlife, too many people will show up and try to get too close. This will make Harbor Seals nervous, worried, and dive away. Seals in general get very stressed if they feel surrounded by potential predators.
Harbor Seals are normally shy and jittery animals. They will become alarmed, stressed, and swim away if many people and boats are nearby or if just one person tries to get too close, usually around 300 feet. Even a brief disruption can cause anxiety to a group of seals, since they will need to spend more time being alert and less time resting.
Harbor seals will become stressed when people talk too loud, or dress in bright colors; or when people walk their dogs too close, or by the sound of a barking dog, and by the close proximity of boats, windsurfers or other human activities. Kayakers too will sometimes frighten seals away even if a kayaker is at some distance. To a harbor seal's brain the shape of a kayak resemblance a large shark, a major marine predator.
Too many disturbances and seals may abandon a favorite haul-out site permanently. This occurred a few decades ago in San Francisco Bay, due to high and chronic incidences of human disturbances, seals abandoned certain haul-out sites permanently. I can't imagine winter in New York Harbor without the sight of seals, but it could happen. There are a lot of people who wish to catch an up-close glimpse of a seal or take a selfie with a seal with their cell phone.
The best way to observe a seal or any wild animal is from far away. Maintain a minimum distance of 500 feet from any marine mammal in the water or on shore to prevent a disturbance. It’s a good idea to bring binoculars or a spotting scope and give the seals plenty of space.
Please take care NOT to make your presence known, either visually or audibly, when you come across an individual or a group of Harbor Seals on land or on the water. Limit your viewing time and keep dogs away from the seals.
Always be respectful and keep plenty of space between you and a wild animal. If your presence causes increased vocalizations, shaking or body tremors; or if a resting animal begins to lift its head with eyes on you, then you are too close.
While seals might appear cute and friendly, they are really wild animals that can give a nasty bite and carry diseases. You should never feed or touch a wild animal. Do not trespass and stay out of all closed areas.
Moreover, if you see a seal that appears injured, entangled, sick, or being harassed by a person or people, 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.