The Gray Seals of Block Island

Sat, 12/04/2021 - 8:00am
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It looks like we are going to have another winter with lots of seals around to observe and to revel in the knowledge that we exist on this precious island in their company.

Thankfully seals have been making a region-wide comeback from their drastic reductions – if not near extinction – in the late 1960s*.
It is true that seals have been around the island’s shoreline for decades. I can remember a high school science teacher leading us cross-lots from the school to Old
Harbor Point to see seals one winter day in the mid-1970s. I wish I knew if those outings were because it was an unusual occurrence, or because it was a good way to burn off the excess energy of unruly students. In any case, the presence of harbor seals in winter below the Parish Center on Spring Street has continued to be a regular sight.

What is of special note in the last five years is the fluctuating abundance of gray seals on our beaches and in the water. This is most dramatically seen at Sandy
Point, where they often haul-out to rest. This mass of seal bodies can look like a large carpet of sleeping, stretching and grunting animals of all sizes and colors (depending on the age and sex of the animal, and how wet the coat is). The numbers of gray seals that are here in any one winter seems to vary, and in some years, such as this year and in 2017, gray seals stayed in large numbers all summer long.
Until relatively recently gray seals have been largely unknown in Rhode Island waters. The first records of gray seals in RI (other than from occasional archeological records dating back hundreds of years) are from stranded animals found on Block Island in 1980, ’86 and ’88. As the breeding populations in Canada and Massachusetts have rebuilt since MMPA* the number of gray seals wandering in southern New England waters has also increased.

I’ve heard it said that the building abundance of seals at Sandy Point represents a colony – this is a misrepresentation of what is occurring. Breeding colonies of gray seal are well to our north in Canada (although the breeding colony on Nantucket, which was extirpated in the 1960s does seem to be rebuilding). What we seem to be seeing on Block Island are aggregations of mostly young, non-breeding animals, simply hanging out as they go about their life of eating and resting.
Some generalizations:
• Most of the seals seen hauled out on rocks off of Spring St. are harbor seals – but not all.
• Most of the seals seen hauled out on the beach at Sandy Pt. are gray seals – but not all.
• At least a couple of harp seals (mostly young and/or newly weaned) are found on the island’s beaches most years.
• It is federally prohibited to go within 150 feet of any marine mammal on the beach.

• Harassment of seals (which is illegal) includes walking or driving so close to the animal(s) that it is/ they are disturbed enough to flee to the water.

It is – and will be for years to come – interesting to observe the coming and goings of the seals on the island’s shoreline – especially gray seals. Not only how many seals are here in winter, but also questions like: when do they peak in numbers, when do they arrive and depart our waters, what species are seen, when do we see pups, etc.?
Save The Bay
Save The Bay (STB) has been monitoring seal presence in Narraganset Bay for over 20 years. Since 2019 The Nature Conservancy on Block Island has partnered with STB to monitor the presence of seals around Block Island using the same STB protocol. This means that twice a month seal presence is noted at specific “sentinel sites” at low tide by a group of volunteers. This community science endeavor is fun and is an important tool to learning more about all the seals that utilize the waters around the island.
You can help

If you’d like to volunteer, contact me at Kim.gaffett@tnc.org. And, stay tuned for notice of a winter seal walk in 2022.

What to do if you see a stranded or dead marine animal?

Call the Mystic Aquarium Marine Animal Hot Line at (860) 572-5955, ext.107 and leave a message. They will call you back, and they will alert a local volunteer to assess the situation.
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*In 1972 the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) went into effect; this law makes it illegal to harass, hunt, capture, kill marine mammals in the U.S. and severely restricts the import of marine mammals and products made from those animals.
Sources for this article come from: https://rinhs.org/marine-mammals-of-rhode-island-part-14-gray-seal/; Savethebay.org; and Mysticaquarium.org.