By Paul Hicks
“Did you see anything interesting?” I called to a guy at Edith Read Wildlife Sanctuary, who had an impressive-looking camera. “No interesting birds,” he answered, “but I did see a seal.” My fellow birder showed me photos on his camera of a seal that he had spotted lying on a rock in Long Island Sound.
Following his directions, I hurried to the northern end of the Playland shoreline, but by the time I reached my destination the tide had risen, covering the rock, and my sought-after seal had departed. However, my quest for a seal sighting had just begun. I will share what I found so far to improve my odds.
Chances of finding one or more seals appear to be quite good, as there is evidence that in recent years an increasing number of seals have been spending winters in Long Island Sound. They migrate from their breeding grounds in Canada and Maine, arrive along our shores around December, and remain into March so there is still time left before the spring migration begins.
Most of them are Harbor seals, which can grow to about 5 or 6 feet long, and weigh from 175 to 225 pounds, the males being slightly larger. Their fur is gray, brown or silver with dark spots. They feed mainly on fish, squid, crabs and lobster, and can stay underwater for as long as 28 minutes. A growing number of much larger Gray seals have also been seen in the western waters of the Sound.
Seals will haul out onto exposed rocks at low tide, lounging about individually or in groups. If you spot seals in Long Island Sound this winter, enjoy them from a distance. Since they are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, it is illegal for anyone to harass them, and only licensed experts are allowed to handle them.
To improve the odds of spotting some seals, the best choice is probably to take one of the cruises offered by the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk on weekends in February and March. The cruises seek out the harbor seals and gray seals that often can be seen near the Norwalk islands on rocks exposed at low tide. Aquarium educators point out these marine mammals and talk about their natural histories. And they’ll also generally discuss what happens to the Sound’s marine population during the winter: who stays, who migrates out, and who migrates in (besides the seals).
The Seal-Spotting & Birding Cruises take place aboard the Aquarium’s R/V Spirit of the Sound, a new 64-foot catamaran that has a heated cabin where you can warm up after being out on deck. Binoculars are available. These cruises also give birders unique “on-the-water” access to see and photograph visiting winter waterfowl, such as buffleheads, mergansers, Brant geese, and long-tailed ducks. Plus, cruise participants can help Aquarium educators with plankton samplings. Data collected during the cruises is added to the Long Island Sound Biodiversity Project, which is an ongoing census of the Sound’s animal species.
The Aquarium advertises that, “These 2½ hour cruises offer memorable family fun,” but please note that all passengers must be at least 42 inches tall. Tickets for a Seal-Spotting & Birding Cruise are $24.95, $19.95 for Aquarium members. Capacity is limited, so advance reservations are strongly recommended. Walk-up tickets will be sold, space permitting. Reserve your spot by calling 203-852-0700, ext. 2206, or by going online to http://www.maritimeaquarium.org. Times of departure depend on low tides.”
For more information about seals in Long Island Sound, check out the Riverhead Foundation for Research and Preservation website (riverheadfoundation.org), especially the section on Pinnipeds, the family that includes seals, walruses, and sea lions. When you see the many photos of the different seal species with their soulful eyes, you are bound to begin your own quest.
Photo of Harbor seal courtesy of William J. Hall Wildlife Photography