Hey People, Please Stop Harassing the Seals in Sandy Hook Bay!
Each winter, many seals arrive from their breeding areas on beaches in northern New England and eastern Canada to tidal sandbars, beaches and small islands in Lower New York Bay and Sandy Hook Bay. The most common of these pinnipeds are Atlantic harbor seals. Scientific name: Phoca vitulina
It's an amazing natural event. Over twenty years ago, seals were almost never seen in New York Harbor or Sandy Hook Bay. Now waters are cleaner, marine mammals have greater protections, and populations of certain fish are starting to rebound. As a result, seal populations have increased to the point that a casual beachgoer can spot a seal resting on a beach nearly anytime during the winter or early spring. It helps too that the United States Congress in 1972 passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act that prohibits the killing or harassment of any wild seal.
Unfortunately, where seals rest and relax isn’t exactly private, especially in Sandy Hook Bay, New Jersey. The proximity of people to seals can come at a cost.
Resting places for seals called "haul-out" sites are important places for these marine mammals. Harbor seals and other species of seals need to come out of the water almost daily to rest and warm up. Unlike other marine mammals, many species of seals cannot maintain their body temperature if they stay in cold water all the time owing to their smaller size and thinner blubber layer compared to whales and dolphins. Studies have shown that seals can stay onshore resting for around 8 hours or more per day during fall and winter months.
Without safe places for seals to haul-out to rest, reheat, and digest their food (particularly important since Harbor Seals usually swallow their food whole after being torn into chunks), they could get sick, exhausted, or stressed out. In addition, quite a few seals observed each winter are pregnant females that will give birth next spring. They too are seeking safe places to rest and feed before returning up north to have their pups.
There have been a number of negative human and seal interactions over the past several years from boaters, wind surfers, and the people trying to get too close to take a picture.
While haul-out sites provide people with excellent locations to view wildlife, too many people will show up and get too close. This will often make harbor seals nervous, worried, and quickly dive away. Seals in general get very stressed if they feel surrounded or overwhelmed by potential predators.
Harbor seals are normally shy and jittery animals. They will become alarmed, stressed, and swim away if many people and boats are nearby or if just one person tries to get too close, usually around 300 feet. Even a brief disruption can cause anxiety to a group of seals, since they will need to spend more time being alert and less time resting.
Harbor seals will become stressed when people talk too loud, or dress in bright colors; or when people walk their dogs too close, or by the sound of a barking dog, and by the close proximity of boats, windsurfers or other human activities.
Kayakers too will sometimes frighten seals away even if a kayaker is at some distance. To a harbor seal's brain the shape of a kayak resemblance a large shark, a major marine predator.
Too much confusion and too many disturbances, the seals will abandon a favorite haul-out site permanently. This has already occurred a few decades ago in San Francisco Bay, due to high and chronic incidences of human disturbances, seals abandoned a certain haul-out site permanently.
We can't imagine winter in New York Harbor without the sight of seals, but it could happen. There are a lot of people who wish to catch an up-close glimpse of a seal or take a selfie with a seal with their cell phone.
If these negative encounters continue, we are likely not going to be able to enjoy the sight of seals in Sandy Hook Bay for much longer.
Seal Watching Guidelines in Sandy Hook Bay, NJ
The best way to observe a seal or any wild animal is from far away!!
If you wish to take home a memory, please invest in a good camera with a high powered lens that can take a decent picture from a distance.
For seals in the water, or on shore, remain at least 50 yards away—about 1/2 a football field (or about 150 feet). This includes people and pets.
If you are not sure the distance, the farther away from wildlife the better!
It’s a good idea to bring binoculars or a spotting scope and give seals plenty of space.
Seals hauled out on land or on rocks are sensitive to boats and human presence. Noises, smells and sights may elicit a reaction.
Be aware of seal behavior that indicates a seal has been disturbed. Such behaviors include, but are not limited to:
- An increase in alert or vigilance,
- Head turning,
- Change in posture from lying to erect,
- Hurriedly moving away,
- Open mouth displays, such as what appears to be a seal yawning
Any seal response other than a raised head should be avoided.
Do not feed, or attempt to feed, any marine mammal. It’s harmful and illegal.
Do not swim with, ride, pet, touch, or attempt to interact with marine mammals in the wild.
DO NOT TAKE A SELFIE WITH A SEAL! There is no selfie stick long enough! As tempting as it might be to get that perfect shot of yourself or your child with a wild seal, please do the right thing and leave wild animals alone.
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, you could get yourself in trouble with the law if you are considered to be harassing or disturbing a wild marine animal.
Additional Seal Watching Guidelines:
Please take care NOT to make your presence known, either visually or audibly, when you come across an individual or a group of harbor seals on land or on the water. Limit your viewing time and keep dogs away from the seals.
Always be respectful and keep plenty of space between you and a wild animal. If your presence causes increased vocalizations, shaking or body tremors; or if a resting animal begins to lift its head with eyes on you, then you are too close.
While seals might appear cute and friendly, they are really wild animals that can give a nasty bite and carry diseases. You should never feed or touch a wild animal. Do not trespass and stay out of all closed areas.
Moreover, if you see a seal that appears injured, entangled, sick, or being harassed by a person or people, in New Jersey call the Marine Mammal Stranding Center at 609-266-0538. In New York, call the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation at 631-369-9829. These two organizations have the authority to help stranded or sick marine mammals and sea turtles. Wildlife experts with the help of trained volunteers will determine if an animal is in need of medical attention, needs to be moved from a populated area, or just needs time to rest.