Celebrating seals and the Vernal Equinox

Thu, 03/12/2020 - 7:30pm

As we teeter on the cusp of spring we may find ourselves suddenly in a day where the wind has abated, and the afternoon sun feels so warm that it is like a Siren’s call to sit, and loll, on the lee side of a favorite stone wall while taking a little rest. If we are lucky, and let ourselves succumb to the pleasure, such a twenty-minute rest – with eyes closed but senses attuned to the warmth and song in the air – we will arise with a damp seat and renewed energy for the day.

That is how I imagine the seals hauled out at low tide in the afternoon sun may feel. When the tide rises and washes them off their rocky perches their rest is over, and it is time to resume the activity of the day – mostly finding food.

As we have come to know here on Block Island, seals haul out at least once a day at the time of low tide to rest and warm themselves; and, that is the time to monitor the seal population around the island by making a count. Although we on Block Island have been watching and taking stock of seals on our shores for decades, it has only been the last two seasons that we have documented the numbers in a consistent way. Adapting Save The Bay’s seal monitoring protocols and dates (for Narragansett Bay) we at The Nature Conservancy are now counting seals at four Block Island areas on the same schedule as the Narragansett Bay counts. Thanks to a core group of volunteers (Bob Greenlee, Heather Hatfield, Mena Hautau, Carol Leslie, Susan Matheke, and Peter Prieser) the areas of Sandy Point, Cow Cove, Clay Head, Cormorant Cove, and Old Harbor Point to the sewer outfall are surveyed twice a month to assess the numbers and species present. harbor and gray seals are the usual species; harp and hooded seals are possible but rarer.

According to Save The Bay (STB), which has been monitoring seals in Narragansett Bay for 25 years, seals generally return to southern R.I. waters starting in September and depart by May, with their population peaking around mid-March. There have been lots of population changes over the past 25 years due in large part to marine mammal protection laws, and of course, our changing climate. Even with these big changes there are also yearly shifts, which is why it is so important to monitor the seal populations on a consistent basis. It is interesting to note that just in the past three seasons seal numbers have fluctuated dramatically. You may recall that in the winter of 2017-18 a large number of gray seals hauled out regularly at Sandy Point (some stayed through the summer of 2018.) But, in the following 2018-19 season gray seals returned to their relatively small minority status, and that seems to be holding true in the current 2019-2020 season. This winter harbor seals are prevalent, but we have not yet had a count rivaling the high count of 2018-19. Last year, on Feb. 4, 2019 the Block Island School fourth grade counted 96 harbor seals at Pebbly Beach behind St. Andrew’s Parish Center. (In case you are wondering, this number was triple checked by students in grade 4, their teacher Libby Szabo, and me.)

During each September to May season, seals are monitored by STB volunteers around Narragansett Bay at regular “sentinel sites.” Block Island’s “sentinel sites” are the ones mentioned above. During the peak season STB’s seal monitoring protocol includes a Bay Wide Count, which includes every known and possible haul out site in the bay. This year I hope to mirror this event with an Island Wide Count. Scheduling this count, in which we hope to have the best possible weather conditions, can be tricky. We start with planning for a day, and then shift based on weather (mostly wind) conditions. This year’s Bay Wide and Island Wide Count is scheduled for Thursday, March 19 at noon — but that my change in the case of poor weather.

We cannot survey all of the island’s shoreline for hauled out and near-shore seals without your help. If you would like to volunteer to help with the Island Wide Seal Count on March 19, it will be greatly appreciated — not to mention fun and the perfect way to celebrate the Vernal Equinox which will transpire at 11:50 p.m. on March 19. Please contact me at (401) 595-7055 or kim.gaffett@tnc.org to volunteer. In the meantime, hope for an increasing number of warm spring days, and for a perfect rock-lolling day for seals on March 19 — a day that will mark both the end of winter, and the beginning of spring.

Note: if you come across a hauled out seal keep your distance and dogs leashed. Seals haul out daily, they are trying to rest, it is important not to impose stress on their nap. But, if you believe that a seal is injured or sick please call the Mystic Aquarium Marine Mammal Stranding Program at (860) 572-5955 ext.107. They have trained response volunteers on Block Island that they will notify.