- Size: males 5-5 ½ feet long, 200-250 pounds; females 4 ½-5 feet long, 150-200 pounds.
- Color: speckled fur with variable color ranging from blue-gray, tan, to nearly black.
- Habitat: open waters and rocks or sandbars.
- When and where to observe: most likely to spot between November and mid-May at haul-out sites like Thomas Pell Wildlife Sanctuary in Pelham Bay Park, Wolf’s Pond, Mount Loretto, and Long Island spots like Jones Beach and Montauk State Parks. Seal watching boat trips are available out of the Rockaways/Fort Tilden through American Princess Cruises.
At first glance, the four seals almost looked like people treading water, bobbing up on the surface in a position called “bottling”, near a derelict boat by Floyd Bennett Field’s sea plane ramp. They seemed to look at us just as much as we were looking at them!
According to the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, the Harbor Seals’ scientific name loosely translates to “sea calf” or “sea dog”, a rather appropriate nickname given their dog-like snout. Their fur has a speckled pattern with variable coloring – from blue-gray to tan to almost black, with lighter colored fur on the belly. Males are 5-5 ½ feet long, weighing 200-250 pounds while females are 4 ½-5 feet and 150-200 pounds. Their diet consists of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans.
Harbor Seals are rather long-lived, perhaps up to 25 years old. Not only adept swimmers, they are able to dive to the remarkable depth of over 1,900 feet and can remain underwater up to 15 minutes, though the average time is two minutes.
Though the New England population is increasing – currently estimated at 91,000 – they do fall victim to oil spills, boats, fishing gear and chemicals.
Summers are spent in the eastern Canada and New England breeding grounds. Males mature between 4-6 years of age, though females are ready to reproduce earlier. Young seals, called pups, are born in the spring. They can swim right away, and are nursed by their very protective mother for 3-6 weeks. Pups weigh 12-20 pounds and measure 2 ½ feet long.
Come winter, Harbor Seals move south as far as the Carolinas. Though some scientists believe they are year-round residents of our waters, the most likely time to see this sociable species is between November through mid-May. Watch for seals in our salt waters, bottling at the surface or in small groups hauled out on rocks and sandbars with head and back flippers raised to a “banana” position. Though wary of people, they do not appear bothered by us at a distance and sometimes follow fishing boats to feed on scraps.
Suggested Harbor Seal viewing spots include the Thomas Pell Wildlife Sanctuary in Pelham Bay Park with a spotting scope at low tide, Wolf’s Pond Park, Mount Loretto, and sometimes extremely cold winters see Harbor Seals on ice around Riverside Park. Long Island has several great places for seals like Target Rock National Wildlife Refuge, Jones Beach State Park, or Montauk State Park. Plus two Long Island-based organizations, the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island and the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, offer winter seal walks and boat cruises.
- Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City by Leslie Day, published 2007 by Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina) by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, accessed 2/1/09 at: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/pinnipeds/harborseal.htm.
- Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulina) by the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, accessed 2/1/09 at: http://www.cresli.org/cresli/seals/hbrseals.html.
- Pinnepeds by the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, accessed 2/1/09 at: http://www.riverheadfoundation.org/edu/content.asp?code=pinnipeds.
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