2014-04-25 / Top Stories

Give Seals Space

By Katie McFadden

“Enjoy them, but enjoy them from a distance,” Richard Simon, Deputy Director of NYC Parks’ Urban Park Rangers said of Rockaway’s recent seal visitors.

Rockaway has had some seals visit its beach recently, which has been a delight for residents who got a chance to see them. Simon encourages residents to take advantage of the rare opportunity to see wildlife in its natural environment, but he also says that people need to be educated on how to behave when an animal pays a visit.

While it isn’t every day that a seal is seen sunbathing on the beach, Simon says seals aren’t strangers to the area. “The most common seals around the area are the harp and harbor seal but on rare occasion you may see a grey seal or hooded seal and it’s not just on Rockaway Beach. They’ve been seen on Coney Island, up the Hudson River in the East River and other areas,” he said. In fact seals have become so common that Simon says the rangers run regular seal watching programs, especially off Orchard Beach where harbor seals can be seen pulling themselves out of the water and basking in the sun.

With the weather being unusually cold over the past few months, some seals have come to the area in search of food and to get a bit more warmth and sunshine. While seals are used to hauling themselves onto rocks, rocks are not as abundant in the ocean, so the marine mammals sometimes take to the beach to get their tan on and some residents have stumbled across the unexpected sunbathers over the past few weeks. In early March, a young harp seal decided to visit Beach 21st Street. A month later, a harbor seal may have been trying to check out the concessions near Beach 97th Street, but experts say these critters were just trying to soak up some rays.

“They like to haul out of the water to get some sun or take a rest,” Simon said. “They want the vitamin D from the sun and it’s usually an opportunity for them to relax. More often than not, you will see them off shore. It’s a little rare to find them on the beach, but not uncommon. They’re just resting, taking it easy and hoping not to run into anything. They tend to be shy of people. That’s why we like to send the message that they’re best to be enjoyed from a distance. They could be aggressive or run back in the water.”

While residents may be concerned over a seal’s health when they find them on the beach, Simon says on most occasions, the seals that come on the beach are healthy and fine. He says a good way to tell they’re in good shape is if they make a “crescent or banana shape by lifting their head and back tail. That’s a healthy sign,” he adds. However not every seal that comes on the beach is healthy, of course. “If a seal is lying down for a long period of time and not moving much, something might be wrong.”

If residents are concerned over an animal that they find on the beach, Simon says the best thing to do is to contact the Urban Park Rangers by calling 311 or the Riverhead Foundation by calling 631-369-9829. “We work closely with Riverhead. They have a mandate to act as a steward over marine mammals in the area. Whenever we have a situation that we can’t handle as rangers, we consult with them. They have a network of people around the region that can help seals,” Simon said.

Stay at least 100-150 feet away while observing them, Simon says. “Some of these animals can hurt people. Seals can get up to 6-feet-long and are powerful swimmers. Should they decide to hit or bite a person, it could really injure them.” He advises to not touch the animals or throw them back in the water. “Seals are protected by federal law through the Marine Mammal Protection Act. When people think they’re being good by handling the animals, and if they’re not authorized to do it, they’re violating the law. There’s legal protection for these animals and incorrect behavior can be taken as harassment. Just stay away and enjoy them,” Simon said.

He also advises dog-owners to not let their pet get close. “If people are letting dogs off the leash and a dog is running ahead, they may see the seal before the owners and out of curiosity, they may approach it and bark at it, which adds additional stress, so we encourage people to not let their pets off the leash.”

Simon stressed that it is important to keep the public educated about urban wildlife. The Urban Park Rangers run programs to which the public is invited and also hold seal watching outings mostly in the winter. For more information about Urban Park Ranger educational programs, check out www.nyc.gov/parks.

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