On a rainy, foggy, Christmas Eve, I was pleased to see my first seal in Pews Creek in the Port Monmouth section of Middletown Township, not far from where I live. The dog-pup profile of the head and its V-shaped nostrils suggested that the little marine mammal was a Harbor Seal.
The seal was out of the water, hauled out on a dock in a local marina. It was resting and relaxing comfortably in the drizzle and downpours. Despite the stormy weather, it looked healthy and happy.
But just in case the animal was sick, I contacted the Marine Mammal Stranding Center located in Brigantine, NJ. They are the only facility in the state authorized to handle marine mammals and sea turtles.
While some people might want to get as close as they can to a seal, there is never a good reason to get close to a wild animal. People need to keep a safe distance away from wildlife to try to keep the animal from being distressed. Wild animals can also bite or transmit diseases It’s always best to enjoy the sight of a beautiful wild animal from afar.
From about 50 yards away and with binoculars in hand, I could see the animal yawning, sleeping, and looking around for danger from its resting spot. Seals often find a safe spot to sleep near the water so they can make a quick escape. At the slightest sign of danger they will slip back into the water and swim away.
But there was no danger here, just a sleepy seal. It was a plump, roly-poly light gray colored Harbor Seal. It was about five feet long and hauled out during an outgoing tide. It was digesting its food, catching up on sleep, and warming up its body in the unseasonably warm 50 degree air temperatures.
Since water, compared to air, conducts heat easily, marine mammals need to find ways to stay warm as they lose a lot of their body heat in water than in air at the same temperature. We share this aspect with marina mammals. This is why people often feel cold when swimming in the water when the temperature is 70 degrees than walking on the beach at the same temperature. We lose our body heat.
If you are a whale, dolphin, or porpoise then you have a very thick layer of blubber to insulate your body and you might eat a lot of seafood to burn energy for metabolic heat. If you are a sea lion, seal or sea otter, in addition to an insulating layer of fat or fur, you may want to haul out during the winter, since time spent on land is time not losing heat so quickly as in the water. Hauling out is a critical piece of being healthy and happy for some marine mammals to maintain a high-quality energy balance.
I could see this wayward seal was enjoying itself out of the water. It was alert, fit and just resting. It spent most of the time sitting quietly on the pier near Pews Creek taking naps. You would hardly know it was there.
The little seal was probably all worn out after a busy night spent foraging for food. Seeing a seal is a reliable indicator of fish in the estuary.
Harbor Seals feed on a wide variety of fish and crustaceans. According to studies done by NOAA from the scat of Harbor Seals collected on sandy beaches in New England, in general, the most numerous prey species in the samples were sandlance, silver hake, Atlantic herring, and redfish. Other species included cod, haddock, pollock, flounders, mackerel, and squid. They will also consume clams, crabs, and shrimp. A Harbor Seal's diet varies seasonally and regionally and often is subject to local prey availability.
Seeing a seal or any marine mammal is always a nice present, but especially pleasing around the holidays. There is something wonderful knowing a seal is living near where you live.
Each year from approximately November to April, seals are spotted in and around the waters of New York Harbor. Seals are most often seen by humans when they "haul out" onto resting places such as piers, docks, rocks or beaches to rest and bask in the sun.
Groups of seals can be seen at two haul-out sites in New York Harbor, one on a remote sandy island in Sandy Hook Bay, and the other on a remote rocky island just south of the Verrazano Bridge. Seals like remote places to rest because they feel safe from people, who hunted seals for food and for their skin up until the mid-1900s.
If you see a seal, please do not disturb the animal. Enjoy the sight from a distance. It is against the law to disturb Harbor Seals and other marine mammals. They are protected by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. Do not harass, scare, or try to feed the animal. Boats should not come closer than 100 yards of marine mammals.
If you see a seal that appears injured, entangled, sick, or being harassed by a person, 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 and Lower New York Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://www.natureontheedgenyc.com