On a cold day in January at the very end – Montauk Point State Park - I set off with 29 other nature lovers on a hike to observe seals in their natural habitat, on the rocks off Montauk Point. Latisha, a naturalist with Montauk Point State Park, was our guide and leader.
We met by the park office in the parking lot. After a brief introduction Latisha led us to a dirt road that took us down to the beach. She told us that the seals like to “haul” themselves up on the rocks during low tide to rest and to warm up in the sun’s heat. Our walk had been timed to coincide with low tide.
Not too many years ago, seals were rare on Long Island. But population counts show a significant and continuing increase in the number of seals traveling to Long Island's waters during the winter months, from November through April. Our guide explained that to a seal, coming to Long Island is like us humans traveling to Florida for the winter. For them, our winter climate is quite balmy. The seals also like to feast on the abundance of mackerel, flounder, and other fish and shellfish in our waters.
We stopped several times along the trail to the Seal Haul -out area for our guide to explain seal behavior, and to tell us about the environment along the beach. We learned that seals are pinnipeds, mammals that have developed specialized flippers for fast swimming. They can stay underwater for up to 28 minutes. Swimming along the coast, resting on rocks, and eating are their main activities.
After walking for about a mile and a half over dirt trails and a sandy, rock-strew beach we came to the Seal Haul-out area. This area, also known as False Point, is an established seal hangout. We were told that there was no guarantee that we would see the seals, but out guide explained that she had never led a hike when she did not see a seal, either on the rocks or swimming in the water.
We were told to keep to the observation area, not to speak loudly, and avoid sudden movements. Apparently seals are sensitive creatures and can get spooked easily.
And the seals were there, basking on the rocks and swimming in the water. Our guide provided binoculars for anyone who wanted to see them close up, and everyone had their cameras or IPhones out to snap pictures of these wild creatures. Honestly, they are so cute that it is hard not to see them as the wild animals they are.
These seal hikes, sponsored by New York State Parks Department, take place most weekends through mid-April. A complete schedule is listed in the calendar section of this web site. There is a small fee, and reservations are required – by calling 631-668-5000. The walks are suitable for most people, even children.
For more information about seals on Long Island go to:
CRESLI (Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island) www.cresli.org
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation www.dec.ny.gov/animals/
The New York Times published a very informative article on seal behavior in Montauk written by Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson. Even though it was published in 1999, much of the information is still current. The link is here: http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/26/arts/wild-life-return-of-the-seals-to-long-island.html