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Give the Seals Some Space this Winter!

The seals are back! Each winter dozens of seals, mostly Atlantic Harbor Seals, arrive from their breeding areas on beaches in northern New England and Canada to tidal sandbars, rocky reefs, and remote beaches and islands in Lower New York Bay and Sandy Hook Bay.

The seals appear in the urban wilds of the New York metropolitan region, in the shadows of tall skyscrapers and near four-lane highways, to rest and feed after a busy season of raising young and molting. But also to compensate for the limited winter habitat in ice-filled harbors and bays, and increased completion for food up north.

Once here, the seals will mostly sleep and take it easy during the day. At night or during flood tides, Harbor Seals will be busy foraging for food. The seals are fish eaters, and will use their long whiskers as a sensor to help follow and track fish in the water, including flounders, sculpins, and sand eels. They can also eat invertebrates such as clams, crabs, and even offshore squids. Harbor Seals are opportunistic feeders that will eat on the abundance of potential prey.  

There must be good prey in the harbor and water quality as well must be getting ever so slightly cleaner during the winter. The population of Harbor Seals has been growing over the past decade to well over 200 from just a handful.

Many people will spot these marine mammals when they are hauled out in large groups along the water's edge to sleep and warm their long, sleek bodies under a bright winter sun. Sometimes a seal or two can be found swimming in the water, but often they are seen in greater numbers hauled out to rest on a beach or on a sandbar.

These long-established "haul-out" sites are important places for the seals. They need to come out of the water almost daily to warm up. Unlike other marine mammals, many species of seals cannot maintain their body temperature if they stay in cold water all the time owing to their smaller size and thinner blubber layer. Studies have shown that seals can stay onshore resting for around 8 hours or more per day during fall and winter months.

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 their pups.

Herein lies the problem. While haul-out sites provide people with an excellent location 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 too many people and boats are nearby or if just one person  tries to get too close, usually around 300 feet. Harbor seals will also become stressed out when harassed by people who talk too loudly, 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 seal's brain the shape of a kayak bears resemblance to a large shark, a major marine predator of a seal.

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. Too many disturbances and seals may abandon a haul-out site permanently, as they did at sites in San Francisco Bay, due to high and chronic incidences of human disturbances. I can't imagine winter in Sandy Hook Bay without the sight of seals, but it could happen. There are lots of people who live around the harbor and many who wish to catch an up-close glimpse of a seal.

If you decide to go out this winter to see the seals, make sure to keep your distance. While the sight of seals in their natural habitat is wonderful to observe, they are also protected federal animals. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 dictates that a person must maintain a safe distance and cautions that if a seal pops out of the water near your boat, not to approach it. Just move away.

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. Although they are great fun to watch, we do not want to harm the seal population in New York Harbor or Sandy Hook Bay by providing too many stressful situations. Limit your viewing time and keep dogs away from the seals.

It’s a good idea to bring binoculars or a spotting scope and give the seals plenty of space. Maintain a minimum distance of 500 feet away from any marine mammal in the water or on shore to prevent a disturbance. While the seals might appear cute and friendly, they are really wild animals that can give a nasty bite and carry diseases. It's best to keep your distance. Do not trespass and stay out of all closed areas.

You should never feed or touch a wild animal. 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. Loud noises and quick movements are likely to scare or agitate wild animals.

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.

For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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