Three kayakers launched into the Hudson River estuary from the 56th Street annex of the Downtown Boathouse late Saturday afternoon for a leisurely outing. The paddle was fun but unremarkable. It was upon their return near sunset that things became quite unusual.
As one of the paddlers, Tim Gamble, shared with others on the NYC Kayaker email list hosted by the Hudson River Watertrail Association, a seal appeared and got friendlier than any on record in these parts:
“It was very curious and followed us, popping up, first behind, then in front again. It seemed very interested and was getting closer and closer. So I made the classic keetch keetch noise and held my hand out like I had some food. It always works with dogs, so I figured it might work with a seal too. The seal swam closer and closer, and then put its paws up on my front hatch. It looked at me once more, then hauled itself up ONTO MY FRONT HATCH COVER. It sat up there for about 30 seconds while I carefully balanced, then it jumped back in the water on the other side of my boat. Really incredible!!!”
Indeed. Though seals are curious and playful creatures, marine mammal protection groups in the New York City area seek to deter overeager humans from unintentionally harassing them, and must often tend to stranded animals. When a seal initiates contact so boldly, it’s cause for alarm.
“That seal’s behavior was absolutely bizarre,” said SUNY Fashion Institute of Technology science professor and Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island president Arthur Kopelman. “That shouldn’t happen. That seal was in need of help or was used to being fed by people. You should call the stranding hotline at that point.”
Immediately after being told of the incident by Nature Calendar, Kopelman alerted biologist Kimberly Durham, the rescue program director of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation. Kopelman noted that in photos posted elsewhere, the young seal seemed to be recovering from an injury to its left eye.
Durham told Nature Calendar that her organization has been monitoring the juvenile, which they believe is healthy, since March 15. She strongly admonished against any kind of interference that would alter a seal’s normal conduct, such as summoning it. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration levies heavy penalties on those found to feed or harass seals, dolphins, whales, and other wildlife.
Gamble, and the experienced kayakers who shared his close encounter, are harbor veterans and committed estuary preservationists who never approach seals hauled out for rest or chase them down in the water.
Back in December of 2001, a pod of kayakers observed seals hauled out at Swinburne Island, a former crematorium off the coast of Staten Island that’s now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. I returned with them a week later to confirm that sighting and report on it for the New York Times. It was newsworthy because until then no community of seals had lived in the harbor for over a century. Individuals might have swam in here and there, but there was no populated “haul out.” Now seal watching at Swinburne Island is so reliable that New York Water Taxi promotes tours in late autumn.
Last week, kayakers voyaging down the Buttermilk Channel to Red Hook, Brooklyn for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation inauguration of the NYC Water Trail saw a seal on Governors Island’s small beach. The small seal that decided to befriend Gamble was photographed hauled up on the Downtown Boathouse’s 72nd Street floating dock hours earlier (captured in the photograph above by Elizabeth Powers). A harp seal, an arctic species that accounts for less than one percent of local sightings, sojourned on the former Downtown Boathouse dock in Tribeca a few years ago.
All five boroughs can claim seal sightings in the new millennium. The event is exciting for eye witnesses but no longer cause for a NYC media sensation. Seals live in our relatively warmer waters between November and June before heading north to the Gulf of Maine and the Canadian Maritime Provinces.
Seals once gathered here in such multitudes that linguistic legacies remain; Robbins Reef lighthouse comes down to us from the Dutch “rob,” for seal. But harbor seals are less sociable than they appear, congregating at haul-out spots that offer safety and convenience, not necessarily camaraderie (excepting oddballs like Hoover, the talking seal). Such locations are ideally near food, though they’ll swim over twenty miles for a good meal.
Today’s pinniped restoration comes as New Yorkers are stampeding to their waterfronts and splashing into their waterways to paddle, row, and swim. Aquatic coexistence between the harbor’s two largest resident mammals is inevitable. If deftly handled, that could be a great thing for both species.
“Kayakers are out there on the water all winter and could provide information beyond the traditional seal count week,” said New York Aquarium animal curator Paul Sieswerda, who is leads annual seal counting expeditions by motorboat to Swinburne Island with Kingsborough Community College. The aquarium reported roughly a dozen seals in its previous counts, but a single outing is unreliable because individuals tend to “spy hop” and reemerge elsewhere, getting tallied redundantly, or stealthily slip past even sharp professionals.
Sieswerda encouraged kayak boathouses to post a marine mammal and turtle spreadsheets to their websites and offered to pass that data along to the Riverhead Foundation so that “a picture will form over the years of just where the seals are and what times they can be expected.”
Photographs are critical, especially now that the 72nd street juvenile has been documented. Harbor seal mating and courtship occurs underwater, but evidence is mounting that New York has become a breeding area. “I’m absolutely sure I’ve got photos of pregnant females,” Kopelman said, adding that his surveys evidence that one of the outer islands of the Long Island Sound is particularly fecund for grey seals, a much rarer species.
Does this seal baby boom signal a broader ecological recovery? Kopelman isn’t sanguine.
The Clean Water Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act (more stringent in the U.S. than anywhere else) have certainly contributed to the rebound over the past three decades. Flounder, striped bass, squid, and alewife, and crustacean stocks must be adequate to support the NYC returnees and their pups. But is the food chain contaminated from the bottom up?
“Coastal ecosystems are in a lot worse shape than they had been. I’m surprised regularly that we don’t see a reduction in seal populations. I’m sure if we studied them we’d find they have high levels of toxins” in their bodies and brains, he said, citing garbage and poisons like methyl mercury (from power plants and industry) to organic chlorines that exist beyond their intended uses in pesticides and herbicides to become general biocides in the environment.
The most intensive study of New York Harbor’s pollution challenges has been conducted by the New York Academy of Sciences. Among the locally active groups translating that information into action are Storm Water Infrastructure Matters, the River Project, and Riverkeeper.
Much of the support these groups get, both financial and volunteerism, comes from recreational water users. What’s good for the seals is good for us.