The early morning sun remained hidden behind dark heavy clouds on Feb. 3, as high winds and frigid temperatures caused the Sound’s current to swirl, making for a choppier ride than usual aboard Mitch Kramer’s 25 foot safe boat, which he maneuvered toward Centre Island. The vice president of the non-profit Friends of the Bay, is out on the Sound in Oyster Bay nearly every day. So are several harbor seals, he said, pointing toward what appeared to be the bobbing heads of a few of the marine mammals. This, he said, may be one of the best kept secrets in the hamlet.
“I’ve seen them for a long time,” Kramer said. “Most people don’t know they are out there because people don’t go out onto the water during the winter. There does seem to be more seals hanging around in Oyster Bay this year than usual.”
That’s a good sign, said Bill Bleyer, president of Friends of the Bay. “Despite challenges from runoff and warming water temperatures, it’s great that the environment has rebounded to the point where it can support that kind of marine life in the western sound,” he said. “Watching the winter seal population at the entrance to Oyster Bay Harbor helps Friends of the Bay keep an eye on the health of the estuary.”
Harbor seals, spend half of its time in the sea and half on land. They typically migrate southward every winter, returning to New England and Canada in the summer. According to the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, a large influx of harbor seals also arrives on Long Island in November and remain through mid-May. But they are usually spotted on the South Shore and further east in Fire Island and Montauk.
“I’m wondering what these guys are feeding on to stay here during the winter,” Kramer said.
Heather Johnson, the executive director of Friends, said she isn’t certain what the seals are eating either, but is happy that they are finding food in the Sound.
She admitted that learning that there are seals in the harbor surprised her. “A month ago was the first time I knew there were seals in the area,” she said. “People didn’t believe me when I told them.”
She had to see them herself.
“It was such a treat,” Johnson said, of her time on the water a few weeks ago when she saw the seals. “But we did keep a respectful distance because it’s their world too.”
And they aren’t going away. Kramer told Johnson that he saw 13 seals on Sunday. Having someone like him on the board of Friends is a great advantage, Johnson said. “Because Kramer is on the water all the time, he can share the good things that he sees as well as the bad,” Johnson said.
When Friends does its water monitoring from 19 sites throughout the estuary from April until October, it also gathers information on the wildlife. Johnson said the volunteers doing the monitoring have never seen seals, probably due to the temperatures of the water.
But now that a used boat has been acquired to replace the 19 foot skiff, Friends may be able to extend its monitoring season when seals are present. The boat is a Parker 2520, which is 24 feet and includes a heated cabin. Johnson hopes that in future Friends may be able to take people out on the water to “see the beauty and bounty of the estuary.” And maybe they will see a few seals too.
Friends of the Bay board members and executive director have been out the past two days checking on the winter seal population at the mouth of the harbor.