It was Christmas Eve along Sandy Hook Bay, a piece of the much larger Lower New York Bay and located downstream from the hustle and bustle of lower Manhattan. The windswept shore was empty of people. Indeed, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse, or for that matter even a gull.
It was chilly, windy day. Gusts up to 25 mph brought a shuddering chill to my exposed face. Nonetheless, the weather was sunny, bright and beautiful. A textbook day to search the edge of a winter beach for marine mammals.
The tide was ebbing. I was optimistic at spotting a few Harbor Seals. Usually, the first seals of the winter will show up around Christmas Eve in Sandy Hook Bay. They arrive long distances from either Long Island Sound or Nantucket Sound following schools of fish.
Nothing at first. Scanning the shore, though, I noticed a small sandbar or sandbank. It was starting to form in the middle of the bay (about 150 yards from where I was standing).
Sure enough, out on this insignificant little sandbar, a number of seals were starting to appear. Here was my first sight of the winter population of Sandy Hook Bay Harbor Seals. They will call this place home for the next three months or so. Some years, as many as 140 seals haul out on sandbars and beaches inside the bay.
As the tide continued to fall, more of the sandbar became exposed above the surface of the water and an influx of seals hauled themselves up onto the bare wet sand. By dead low tide, there were at least 30 Harbor Seals spotted.
From what I could see through my binoculars, the seals looked healthy, good sized, and their skin was shiny, like a seal you might see at an aquarium. Except these seals were wild and free - the best way to see any animal!
Many of the older seals were lying in the center resting and digesting their latest meal, while younger, immature seals located on the edge of the sandbar were more active. They would slip into the water for a minute or two before hauling out to take a break, then slide back into the water.
Sandy Hook Bay seems to be a favorite winter place for many seals to rest, relax, and enjoy. The site seems perfect for their needs. The bay is protected from large ocean waves, there are sandbars and remote beaches to rest during the daytime, and it sits adjacent to a deepwater sea channel that leads to traveling fish.
Throughout the winter in Lower New York Bay, the seals can forage for winter flounder, blackfish, eels and sliver hake. These fish can be found in the coldest months and are plentiful when many other species of fish are not.
All looked good on this Christmas Eve. I was enjoying the pleasure of seeing seals in the bay. Then out of nowhere a rude kayaker arrived. He approached to close to the sandbar and scared all the wary seals away. What a jerk. Bah humbug!
Kayakers need to be especially careful when paddling in the water with seals because the boats have the same profile as a shark and can stress an entire group of seals. Boaters and kayakers need to observe a safe minimum distance of fifty yards (or 150 feet) away from seals.
Beach walkers, especially a person walking a pet, need to take care NOT to make their presence known — either visually or audibly — when you come across an individual or a group of seals. Seals may flee into the water immediately when they hear or sight a human. This flight disrupts their habits and may endanger their health.
Please maintain a minimum distance of 150 feet from any marine mammal in the water or on the shore to prevent a disturbance. View them from a distance. It is illegal to harass, kill, or possess any marine mammal (dead or alive) in the US. Seals can also give a serious, bacteria-laden bite, despite those big, sad, "come hither" eyes.
If you think a seal is in distress, do not touch or approach it. Contact the police or a park ranger and give the seals exact location and a description of the animal. You may also contact directly the Marine MammalStranding Center in NJ at (609) 266-0538 or the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation in New York City at (631)369.9829
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/