The Harbor Seal Returns


I remember them squinting–blinking back the silvery glare of Long Island Sound’s ice and waves magnified through the Swarovski spotting scope. Bundled up in layers upon layers against the January gusts on the jutting promontory of Stamford’s Cove Island Park, my daughters and I were finally rewarded with a glimpse of our quarry.

There, fully half a mile out onto the freezing Sound, 14 Harbor Seals lay hauled out on the rocks exposed at low tide. Dozing atop the rocky islet in apparent bliss just inches from the frigid waters, they basked as if lounging on tropical sands. Flexing our gloved fingers to keep them limber for note taking, we scribbled our observations while the frenzied wind whipped strands of hair across our eyes. Along with several dozen fellow volunteers, we were piloting a citizen science seal observation study with colleagues at The Maritime Aquarium. Our goal–to document the presence, diversity and basic behaviors of these magnificent marine mammals making an historic return to their native waters.

The Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina), is one of the world’s most successful and widespread marine mammals. Boasting a range which includes: the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts of North America, Greenland, Iceland, Atlantic and Arctic Coastal Europe as well as the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Bering Sea, these small seals command a big presence. These beautiful creatures possess a rounded, dog-like snout, large dark eyes, clawed flippers, a plump body and a sleek coat ranging from light tan to silver or blue-gray with spots or speckling. Reaching lengths of no more than 6 feet and weights of just 285 pounds, they are denizens of coastal waters where they hunt for fish, crustaceans and shellfish. Historically, it was the Harbor Seal’s specialty as a coastal species hunting near shore waters that placed it within easy range of sealers’ harpoons, hunters’ rifles and fishermen’s nets. This proximity amplified human threats including: net and gear entanglement, illegal feeding, vessel traffic and collisions, chemical contamination such as oil spills, and habitat degradation. With implementation of The Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, came a gradual reversal in population trends and health for the Harbor Seals. With protection came greater awareness of their needs and fragility.

Hunted to extirpation or regional extinction from U.S. waters during the 20th century, they have staged a bold comeback in Connecticut’s coastal waters. In fact, due to their status as a marine mammal which affords them full federal protection, including a mandatory minimum approach distance of 150 feet, they have made an occasional “nuisance” of themselves. In recent years, Harbor Seals have been spotted: hauling out on Fairfield County harbor police docks, 37 miles up the Connecticut River on Wesleyan University’s Crew boat ramp, and even lounging on the hulls of nuclear submarines at the U.S. Naval Submarine Base in Groton!…I did say bold.

From an ecological standpoint, the Harbor Seal’s role is extremely complex and only partially understood. What’s certain is its status as a mid level predator, providing benefits including balance of predatory fish stocks which in turn produce more robust, stable populations of harvested fish and shellfish species.

While its ecological role is paramount, there is another aspect to these endearing marine mammals which is inestimable. Though classified as a meso (mid-level) aquatic carnivore, the Harbor Seal, by any terrestrial measure, is a large carnivore which inhabits the same waterways and beaches as humans. Other than responding to episodes of illegal feeding or harassment, it does so peacefully–with no aggression. This is quite remarkable. We have a 6-foot-long, 200+ pound torpedo of a carnivore possessing jaws resembling a Mountain Lion’s. It can power through the water at speeds of 20 miles per hour, reverse direction in a fraction of a second, launch its entire body airborne and it does not attack us clumsy, nosy humans splashing in its midst.

While we focus on the cute, we must not lose sight of the fact that these mammals are superb hunters.

Yet it is the seal’s adorable, big-eyed, whiskered, puppyish face which catches our eyes and opens our hearts. That’s okay, because we ultimately conserve those wild creatures which touch us. Thankfully, the Harbor Seal is just as resilient as it is adorable. It’s robust recovery not only provides evidence of its status as an indicator species, confirming the vastly improved health of our coasts and the rivers which flow to them. It also provides us with well-founded hope that we can indeed protect what we love.

As a zoologist, I suspected the seal study held great promise to impart knowledge, understanding and caring toward the protection of this key species. As a father witnessing his children’s smiling faces and looks of wonder each time they spotted the seals safe and sound…I got all the proof I ever needed.

Jim Knox is the Curator of Education at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo. His work with endangered species in human care and in the wild provides him with the privilege of sharing knowledge gained from those experiences.

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