The timing can be tricky and unpredictable, but when spotted the spectacle is unforgettable. It can happen anytime and anywhere along the Jersey Shore during the winter.
The winter solstice arrived early in the morning on December 21. Along Sandy Hook Bay in Atlantic Highlands not far from the harbor, the air was chilly and there were a few whitecaps on the water from a stiff northerly breeze. Yet, the sky was partly cloudy and the sun shone golden as it rose in the eastern sky to cast golden sparkles on the shoreline.
It was a perfect backdrop to be out to spot some seasonal sights of local wildlife. I was birding just after sunrise. All manner of winter ducks were taking advantage of the low tide to forage in the shallows near the harbor. There were several Black Ducks, Buffleheads, Mallards, and Mergansers, even a few shy Golden-eyes. They looked busy plucking food from the water, and exhibiting their skill at adapting well to the season.
I was so focused on waterfowl that I almost missed it. Popping in and out of the water about a hundred feet or so away was an adult Harbor Seal. What an amazing sight! The seal emerged out of nowhere, but appeared to be foraging up a fish for breakfast, most likely a flounder. Maybe even a clam or two.
With binoculars in hand, I could more clearly see the lone seal. It had a dog-like head sticking out of the water, almost giving it an appearance of a Springer spaniel. Yet, this was no dog. This was a marine mammal, a living thing that thrives in the aquatic environment.
Except for a few whiskers near its mouth and some facial hair, the seal seemed hairless and did not have visible ears. It was a true seal or an earless seal, different from fur seals or sea lions that display ears on their heads. The nose was also noticeable. Its nostrils had a "V" or heart shape. The body was gray in color with an overlay of sports and blotches.
The characteristics suggested a Harbor Seal to me. As winter settles in, Harbor Seals migrate from Cape Cod, the coast of Maine, and points further north where they breed during the spring and summer to remote beaches along Long Island, New York Harbor, and down the length of the Jersey Shore. The seals settle in for the winter to rest on well-established haul-out sites: land bases, mostly gently inclining sand bars or isolated beaches, where the seals will take it easy and find refuge during the non-breeding season.
Lucky for me, I was in the right time and place to see this hungry Harbor Seal. For a few minutes there was a rush of excitement. It didn't last long and neither did the sight of the seal. The marine mammal was gone in a matter of minutes. Yet, it was just as if Mother Nature had turned a switch, winter weather arrived and so had this seal to Sandy Hook Bay.
In past winters, the shoals and sandy beaches around Sandy Hook Bay always seemed to have magically come alive with the sights and sounds of seals. Although distant, the familiar silhouettes of seals could have been seen with a spotting scope or binoculars. A few years back, I estimated the winter population of Harbor Seals at Sandy Hook to be over 100. This was an increase from a decade ago when there were just a handful to observe at Sandy Hook.
This winter, though, will be different. With Sandy Hook National Recreation Area closed indefinitely to the public due to on-going repairs from Super-storm Sandy, the best chance to observe seals in the bay might be just spotting a head or two sticking out of the water. Forget about observing haul out sites at Sandy Hook.
Swimming seals though, do not stay long. Harbor Seals like nothing more to be on the move when hunger overtakes them. They also tend to leave an area quickly if people or pets become noisy. Startling movements will also disturb a seal.
Yet, this estuary never fails to amaze people. For me, the winter solstice was made even more meaningful this year with the sight of a swimming seal in Sandy Hook Bay, even though it was swift and some distance away. Thank goodness for camera lenses, spotting scopes, and binoculars. The winter pastime of watching seals in the bay has arrived.
If you think a seal or another marine mammal is sick, hurt or in danger, do not touch or attempt to help it. 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://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/