By Caitlyn McDuffee and Felicia LaLomia
Three parks on Long Island are offering weekly seal walks through February and March to teach the public about the animals and show the seals in their habitat.
Cupsogue Beach County Park, Jones Beach and Montauk Point State Park facilitators hope they will make the Long Island community more aware of the marine animals.
“We hope these seal walks create stakeholders,” Dr. Arthur H. Kopelman, president of Coastal Research Education Society of Long Island (CRESLI), said. “Someone who feels this connection to what’s there, to what they see, as if they’ve got a stake in the existence in the state of these ecosystems, and I hope that it will aid them to act in such a way to preserve them because we are all dependent.”
Jones Beach has seen increases in popularity of the seal walks and have even added a waitlist. Suzanne Montefinise, director of the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center, said they have added more walks in the past years. The center has at least one every weekend and do many private walks during the week, taking around 50 people each time. Each group observes around 10 seals in the Field 10 harbor.
“I think a lot of people on Long Island don’t realize that we have this natural environment,” she said. “Because we have so many malls, parkways, and suburban area, they don’t realize that we have a lot of wildlife here. So, I think when you see that you get curious and interested.”
The Long Island shores are home to a variety of marine creatures, but park staff say much of the public is still surprised to find out seals are among them.
“I feel like people don’t really know there are seals here, and when they hear that, it is such an odd thing to them,” Michael Bayer, the Parks and Recreational Aid at the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center at Jones Beach State Park, said. “They have to see it to believe it.”
The number of seals seen depends on time of year and location of the park, Dr. Kopelman said.
“The seals will begin to show up in September, but the numbers increase rapidly in January, February and keep increasing until late March,” he said.
In the spring and summer, the seals are in the Gulf of Maine and the Arctic. But the amount of seals worldwide has been increasing over the past few decades, due to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 which prohibited the killing of marine mammals for their fur or interference with commercial fishing.
“Populations are increasing due to protection from Marine Mammal Protection Act, in general,” Robert A. DiGiovanni, Jr., Founder and Chief Scientist of Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, said. “Locally, because seals have found the right environment to live, mate and find food.”
The mean number of seals seen per observation on Cupsogue Beach was about 91, compared to 67 in 2015 and 10 in 2007, according to CRESLI. Between November and March, when most seal walks are held, February and March are the best times to see the seals with averages of almost 61 and 72 seals seen per walk respectively.
The seals are most visible to the public during these month because of their migration pattern, Annie McIntyre, the Regional Environmental Manager at the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center, said.
“Out in Montauk, the first place they would hit, you can see them in December because the population is decent there. But it takes time for them to get further west,” she said.