A date with our blubbery neighbors
First-ever head count of harbor seals is held off South Beach shore
Bobbing up and down in the chilly waters off Swinburne Island yesterday, nine speckled gray harbor seals chased down a lunch of herring and flounder, stopping to cast curious glances at a boat full of admirers.
The visitors were keeping a tally and observing the behaviors of the seals as part of Seal Count 2007, a joint effort of the New York Aquarium and Kingsborough Community College, both in Brooklyn.
The formal seal count began last year, led by Aquarium Curator Paul Sieswerda, a St. George resident who had heard occasional reports of sightings in the area from passing boaters, or those who spotted seals sunbathing on the shores of Staten Island and Brooklyn.
“This area around New York Harbor has not been studied at all,” Sieswerda said. “We’re excited to be part of something brand-new to add to the bigger picture.”
The data collected will be sent to the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, which will compile the counts from other aquariums in the Northeast to track seal populations.
Though last year’s count found 20 different seals, yesterday’s tally of nine doesn’t mean there are any fewer seals.
“I have to assume there are more,” Sieswerda said. “Likely there are more out fishing at the time we happened to look.”
The population appears healthy, he said, which is a good indication of improving water quality.
The early-afternoon visit was timed to find the seals at the point just after they’ve feasted on herring or winter flounder, when they “haul out” of the water and bounce their blubbery bodies onto the mossy green rocks to warm up in the sun.
“They come out and sunbathe and make it a home,” said Prof. Anthony DiLernia, director of Kingsborough’s Maritime Technology program.
The seals are drawn to the peaceful isolation of Hoffman and Swinburne islands just off the coast of South Beach, in view of Coney Island Park, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and passing cargo ships destined for one of the country’s busiest ports.
Swinburne, which like Hoffman was built in the 1800s to house quarantined immigrants and is now abandoned, is a particular favorite among the seals, which are drawn to its low-lying rock piles, at the perfect height for the animals to climb into and out of the water easily. The islands are part of the Gateway National Recreation Area and are closed to the public.
<A href=”http://ads.silive.com/RealMedia/ads/click_nx.ads/www.silive.com/xml/story/si_advance/n/ntop/@StoryAd?x”><IMG src=”http://ads.silive.com/RealMedia/ads/adstream_nx.ads/www.silive.com/xml/story/si_advance/n/ntop/@StoryAd?x”></A> “It’s an ideal place for the seals to stay. They have everything they need on dry land,” DiLernia said. “It’s like South Beach for a seal — and I don’t mean South Beach, Staten Island.”
Captain Robert Stiglitz, who operated Kingsborough’s 46-foot former buoy tender with the help of students, carefully positioned the boat close enough to get a good look at the seals but not so close as to scare them away.
The seals bobbed up and down in the water alone or in groups, occasionally “spy-hopping,” a behavior that makes the seals resemble little furry periscopes, peeking out to see what’s going on above the waves.
Jumping seals actively chasing fish exhibited another behavior, “porpoising,” that looked like a dolphin’s graceful arch.
With seal populations burgeoning farther north, harbor seals migrate each spring in search of a “seal suburb” like Swinburne, where there is plenty of room to spread out, and plenty of fish to be eaten. They usually stay through August before heading north again.
Seals were once hunted by fishermen angry that the creatures were eating the fish they were trying to catch. But passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 has gone a long way in bringing back these populations, Sieswerda said.
While Staten Islanders with powerful binoculars may be able to catch a glimpse of the harbor seals at Swinburne from the South Beach fishing pier, anyone looking to see a seal up close and personal can meet “Bernie,” the seal who lives at the New York Aquarium.
By Maura Yates
Looking for the seal survivors
Crew member Steve Lori peers through binoculars for flippered animals.
Expedition leader Paul Sieswerda explains importance of annual population count.
Northeast Annual Seal Survey is conducted all along the East Coast, from Maine to Brigantine, N.J.
It was a rendezvous cruise with some fine flippered friends.
Last week, for the second year in a row, Kingsborough Community College students and a band of sharp-eyed seafarers participated in the Northeast Annual Seal Survey, with the help of the school’s navy.”It’s similar to the Christmas Bird Count,” said Paul Sieswerda, curator of the New York Aquarium, who led the count.
The survey is conducted all along the East Coast â€” from Maine to Brigantine, N.J. Though it’s not a scientific census, it can gauge the health of the Atlantic harbor seal population, which migrates into our region in early spring and heads north again in August.
“The Riverhead Foundation will put it in a database so there can be a real picture of the seal population all along the northeast coast,” Sieswerda said, noting the seals have been known to swim as far south as Virginia.
The day aboard The Kingsborough, a former Coast Guard buoy tender owned and operated by the college and steered by Capt. Robert Stiglitz, included a chilly tour of the Coney Island coast to the mouth of the Hudson River. There were spectacular views as the vessel chugged along at 6 knots â€” about 7 mph.
When the crew arrived at Swinburne Island, the sailors sighted a total of nine adult seals. Swinburne is about 2 miles off the South Shore of Staten Island and has not been occupied since its stint as a control tower base during World War II.
Surveyors squealed with delight as harbor seals frolicked among the rocks and popped their heads in and out of the water.”It’s pretty cool,” said Wilfredo Mejia, 20, a maritime technology student at Kingsborough. “It’s not every day you see seals in the Hudson River.”
Although there were 11 fewer seals counted than last year, Sieswerda said there’s no reason to worry.”Not a lot of the seals were out on the beach. It’s not a good day for sunning,” he said, referring to the frigid wind. “But I am encouraged that the same population that was here last year is here this year and they are in great shape.”