Seals are out and about in Montauk

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Reports from Montauk State Park’s first three seal observation walks of the 2008-2009 season have been tallied, leaving no doubt that the seals are back. The first walk, held on the afternoon of December 14, found a token seal basking on the rocks just east of Oyster Pond Bend. Still, visitors to the haulout site were thrilled to get a close look, and an even closer look at this interesting marine mammal through the spotting scope.

Participants on the December 27 visit to the site, also under nearly perfect conditions (light wind, no surf, low tide), were treated to 28 seals basking and two swimming in the area, including one mature grey seal.

An early morning walk led by Art Kopelman last Friday (1/2/09) turned up 60 seals: 10 grey and 50 harbor. Yet the next morning, visitors to the Montauk site found none. Why the wide variation?

This site is most heavily used by seals around low tide, when the rocks they like to bask on are “highest and driest.” Last Saturday’s visit coincided with a strong north wind. The wind chill factor has to drop extremely low, -15 degrees Fahrenheit, according to seal biologists, to affect the basking habits of seals. But a strong wind out of the north, west and east quadrants can kick up enough of a swell to make the low, rocky perches unusable for the seals.

The Montauk State Park seal haulout site is easily accessible if you would like to visit on your own. Check the tide tables for a low tide at Montauk Point’s north side. Then check the weather forecast for wind strength and direction; avoid anything 15 knots or more unless it’s from the southwest, south or southeast.

The easiest access is to park at the south end of Camp Hero Road (near the Point Woods Trailhead), walk across the highway (Route 27) and head north on the well marked “Seal Haulout Trail.” In less than a mile you will reach the low bluff overlooking Block Island Sound and the mosaic of glacial boulders that comprise the “Stepping Stones” on which the seals bask.

Although seals can rest, and even sleep, in the water, basking behavior is an important energy conservation strategy even when the air temperature

is significantly colder than the water. This has to do with the conductivity of water versus air. The bottom line is that your visit should not disturb the seals and cause them to abandon terra firma. Stay off the beach and observe them quietly from atop the bluff. Leave the dogs at home, as well as any friends or family members who can’t stop themselves from throwing rocks when visiting the shore.

Better yet, schedule a visit with a 
guide through Montauk Point State 
Parks or the Coastal Resources and Education Society of Long Island. For a winter 2009 schedule of Montauk Parks seal walks, visit www.mikebottini.com. For a CRESLI schedule (Montauk and Cupsogue County Park) visit www.CRESLI.org.

If you can, please consider e-mailing your sightings (date and number of seals) to me at mike@peconic.org. Happy seal watching!

Montauk Point Seal Observation Walk

On Sunday, January 11 at noon, join park naturalist Mike Bottini on a three-mile (round trip) hike to view seals and learn about their habits, adaptations and population trends in the Long Island region. Dress warm and wear comfortable hiking shoes; we will be outdoors for more than two hours. Binoculars are recommended but are not necessary; a spotting scope will be available. This program is sponsored by New York State Parks. Participants should meet at the Montauk Point concession area. The fee is $5 per person and $3 for children. Call 631-668-5000 for reservations and additional information.

Mike Bottini is a naturalist and author of “The Southampton Press Trail Guide to the South Fork,” “Exploring East End Waters: A Natural History and Paddling Guide,” and “The Walking Dunes: East Hampton’s Hidden Treasure.” Check www.peconic.org for Mike’s field naturalist classes.

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