It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... No -- wrong story! This is A Tale of Two Seals, not Cities, which is only about the best of times!
After all, what could be better than spending a sunny afternoon on a boat, admiring salt marshes and skyline while spotting Harbor Seals?
People are often surprised to hear that Harbor Seals can be seen in New York City and surrounding waters, but indeed, they regularly spend winter months in our neighborhood. Seals are frequently seen by boat with their heads poking through the water (think of a person treading water) in a behavior called "bottling." Other times, they are sighted lounging on rocks and shoreline.
This year, we treated ourselves to two seal cruises so that we could observe different habitats and populations (any excuse to spend time on the water!).
Seal cruise one took us from the busy Freeport, Long Island marina on one of the comfortable boats in the Captain Lou fleet. Guided deep into the brackish waters of the Hempstead Bay, we entered an area within Jones Beach State Park that most of us never get to see.
Huge flocks of Brant Geese flew overhead, or chatted amongst themselves as we motored by. Above their raucous conversations, we heard shrill and very distinctive calls, leading us to sightings of American Oystercatchers on the marsh edges -- a sure sign that summer was not long off. Both species offered a spectacular display of the changing seasons.
Soon after the Captain stopped the motor, we saw our first Harbor Seal bobbing in the water, looking much like a dog (their Latin name, Phoca vitulina, roughly translates to "sea dog"). By the end of the two hour trip, we racked up about 50 sightings, though I couldn't say that we saw 50 individuals -- seals are very active swimmers! I hoped to see a few basking on the salt marsh but the on-board naturalist indicated such sights were only at extreme high tides.
Cruise number two brought us back to my favorite people who run the American Princess out of Riis Landing in the Rockaway section of Queens. (You might remember that our first seal cruise was back in February 2011 and we returned in the summer for the whale/dolphin experience). The boat is great, the people warm and knowledgeable, and I simply love enjoying nature that lives right here in the city.
Despite warm land temperatures, it was cold and windy on deck, leading to a slightly choppy ride, and possibly the reason for limited bird sightings. As we sailed past Brighton Beach, Coney Island and then out to the private Sea Gate community, we only saw a few Long-tailed Ducks and a Common Loon, but loads of Herring Gulls and a healthy representation of Great Black-backed Gulls.
No matter, this was one of the rare times I wasn't after birds -- I was looking for those pinnipeds! And I didn't need to wait long once we arrived south of Swinburne Island...
This artificial island within sight of the Verrazano Bridge was created in 1860 to quarantine new immigrants carrying contagious diseases. The island was later used for training of merchant marines in World War 2. Today, nature has claimed this man-made landscape and its building shells -- bird life abounds and Swinburne is part of NYC's Harbor Herons monitoring program.
Our boat bobbed in the shallow waves, and the seals bobbed around us, looking just as curious as we were. My guess is that the boat's total number of sightings hovered around 20 -- quite impressive, but the day's highlight was the mother and pup found basking in the afternoon light along the rocky, cement "shoreline." This was the scene I had longed for.
On a boat, in the sun, surrounded by seals. Yes, this is clearly the very best of times.