Since my encounter earlier this spring with a lone gray seal pup on a Long Island beach, seals have been swimming through my thoughts. Such encounters are on the increase in the New York area. Over the past few years, seals have turned up all along NYC beaches and piers, including Coney Island and even Brooklyn’s toxic Gowanus Canal (that seal was rescued, rehabilitated and released into Long Island Sound by the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, about which more below).
Last year, a young harbor seal perched atop a Hudson River piling at around 64th Street. Although New Yorkers may not realize it, the Hudson is tidal. This seal rode the high tide to its perch, and must have had to wait out the hours until the water again rose to meet it.
Five species of seal may be spotted in the waters around New York and Long Island: Harp seals, Harbor seals, Gray seals, Hooded seals and, very rarely, Ringed seals. Harbor seals, once abundant here and currently making a comeback, are the most common., followed by Grays.
Here is a lovely 2009 video from the Wildlife Conservation Society of an annual count of harbor seals in the area beneath the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in New York Harbor. New York Aquarium Curator Paul Sieswerda attributes the increase in sightings to the clean-up of the Hudson. “The water has been so much improved,” he says, “that the fish are back, and the seals find plenty of food to live off of.”
If you are lucky enough to spot a seal hauled out on shore, please give the animal plenty of space. Seals come ashore to rest and warm up on sun-warmed sand or rocks. The presence of humans (and their dogs) can stress and exhaust the animals, making them more vulnerable to disease and predation. CRESLI, (Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, Inc) recommends keeping a distance of at least 50 yards.
When I saw this little seal with its head down, looking like a hunk of blubber, I worried it was ill or injured.
In fact, it was simply resting. This points up an important issue: If you’re not trained in seal behavior, don’t make assumptions and please don’t do anything to “help” the seal. Don’t splash water on it, don’t feed it, and don’t try to help it back into the water. Leave it alone. Most of the time, the animal is fine, and is simply doing what seals do.
Occasionally, an animal may be sick, injured or entangled in a fishing net. If you have any doubts about the welfare of any marine mammal or sea turtle, please call the 24-hour NYS Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Program (631-369-9829).
That’s what I did when I worried over the baby seal. Even on a Sunday, the answering service took a description and the location, and relayed the information to a biologist at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation.
The Riverhead Foundation conducts marine research and, when necessary, rehabilitates sea creatures. Many ill and injured seals have been successfully rehabilitated and released to the wild. This wonderful and moving video from Island Wildlife Natural Care Centre in British Columbia shows a young seal tentatively leaving its carrying case and then rushing joyfully (anthropomorphic or not, it is the only word) into the waves:
When you call the hotline, be patient. On the day of my seal encounter, I waited on the beach, hoping to be there when the rescuers arrived. Some time later, I called back, slightly impatient, only to learn that the foundation’s single van must cover all of Long Island, from Brooklyn to Montauk. There had been several sightings that day, and the van had gone to check out a seal on Coney Island.
Two days later, I called the Foundation and spoke with a very helpful biologist. She said they had received several calls about the Flying Point Beach juvenile, and that the descriptions indicated it was a normal, healthy young seal. She told me that Gray seals are weaned at the age of two or three weeks and that this seal was probably around two months old and completely independent.
Whatever connection I feel with wildlife, I must acknowledge the limits of my imagination, particularly when it is shaped only by human emotions and experience without the expanding influence of scientific knowledge. Now, with even a small amount of research under my belt, I may be able to more accurately interpret the behavior of the next seal pup I encounter, and not assume it is lonely, abandoned and in need of care when it is, in all likelihood, doing just fine.
Check back later this week for a more mysterious reason to leave seals alone. Just know, they may not be what you think they are.