Ready to see some seals this winter? Believe it or not, Lower New York Bay, including Sandy Hook Bay and Raritan Bay, is a great place to see seals, especially Harbor and Gray seals.
It's winter, so there is plenty of remote or secluded beaches, sandbars, and islands for seals to haul-out to rest and relax. There is lots of open water for seals to swim around, and easy access to the Atlantic Ocean for marine mammals to migrate or pass through. Improving water quality in the bay helps as well to bring about more food for seals to eat, such as fish, clams, or even an occasional crab. With well over a hundred seals counted every year, all of sudden Lower New York Bay has become important seal habitat during the winter.
Unfortunately, if you are a fan like me of Sandy Hook National Recreation Area, then you're saddened too by the fact the park is closed until the summer due to repairs and on-going maintenance from damage done by Super-storm Sandy. Over the last 10 years this valuable federal park located downstream from New York City has been one of the best places in New York Harbor and along the Jersey Shore to see seals.
So what's a seal watcher to do this winter without Sandy Hook? Happily, New York City Audubon has picked up the slack. They offer seal and winter water bird watching tours every Sunday afternoon during January and early February. Tours last about 2 hours and depart from South Street Seaport aboard New York City's famous eco-friendly Water Taxi.
A few weeks ago I decided to take a tour in hopes of seeing a few seals. It was perfect weather for cold-loving marine mammals, cloudy skies and cold air temperatures. Even if temperatures inland were in the lower 50s, a chilly east wind made it feel ten or fifteen degrees colder outside. Brrrr, certainly a hat, heavy coat, and gloves were needed. All would be toasty though, given that we spotted some seals.
Our tour leader was Gabriel Willow, an entertaining fellow who is a teacher-naturalist with the Prospect Park Audubon Center and originally from Maine. So he knows a thing or two about seals. Gabriel has led this eco-cruise program since its inception in 2004. His knowledge was valuable as we scanned along the rocky shores of Governors Island and the urban post-industrial landscape of Red Hook, Brooklyn for Purple Sandpipers, Buffleheads, Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Loons, Greater Cormorants, Horned Grebes, Long-tailed Ducks, and other colorful winter water birds with whimsical names. No seal sightings though.
Next we headed past the Verrazano Bridge to the southeastern shore of Staten Island. This is an area home to a pair of remote and normally inaccessible places for people. They are known today as Hoffman and Swinburne Islands. During the early 20th century these small, man-made islands served as areas of quarantine for newly arriving immigrants that carried dangerous contagious diseases, including typhoid fever, yellow fever, and cholera.
Now these abandoned islands, especially Swinburne, have been taken over by seals during the winter as a place to rest, conserve energy, digest food, and increase their body heat from the sun. During low tide seals are often found positioning their massive bellies across the rocky rip-rap on dry ground to spend the afternoon resting in the sun.
To be honest, I just expected to see maybe a handful of seals, four or five at most. Yet, on this particular boat tour we got lucky. There well over 30 seals lounging by the water. Awesome!
At first the seals appeared way off in the distance as dark rocks. As the boat slowly came in closer though, these dark rocks magically turned into seals. What a remarkable sight. In view of the tall towers of Lower Manhattan were a large group of marine mammals, known as Harbor Seals.
Harbor Seals are amazing creatures to observe, perfectly adapted to the marine life. They evolved from prehistoric animals some 30 million years ago that were very similar to dogs. This is one reason why Harbor Seals have a dog-like face. In fact the Latin name for the Harbor Seal, Phoca vitulina , translates loosely in English to “sea dog.”
More fun ahead. The elusive seals began to swim and frolic in the water, and everyone on board the boat were charmed and surprised by the antics of these sea mammals. The sleek, shiny bodies of the seals swam and dove with heads popping up here or there. Sometimes even waving a flipper as if to say hello! The seals seemed as interested in us as we were in them. What a show, even on a cloudy, cold day!
No matter the weather, there is nothing like seeing a group of seals in Lower New York Bay. I will be back again for sure, though with a large thermos of hot chocolate in hand.
To register for a NYC Audubon winter seal and water bird boat tour, please go to the special NYC Audubon webpage on the New York Water Taxi website found here: http://www.nywatertaxi.com/tours/audubon-winter
Be quick. Tours sell out quickly and there are only a few more left before the program concludes on February 3. Prices are $35 for adults and $25 for children under 12.
For more information or to become a member of NYC Audubon, go to their website here: http://www.nycaudubon.org/home/
Also, if you ever spot a seal that you think is sick, hurt or in danger, do not touch or attempt to help a wild animal, as it can bite. Instead call the NJ Marine Mammal Stranding Center at (609) 266-0538. In New York, please call the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation at (631) 369-9829.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://www.natureontheedgenyc.com