Spy hopping, banana posing and other seal questions

Thu, 01/17/2019 - 10:30pm
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With our yards and meadows mostly buttoned-up or battened-down, we are paying more attention to our island-wide back yard.

Have you ever been walking on the beach, and realized that somebody was watching you? Or, lost in thought admiring the rivulets of sand — created how? by wind or wave? — and been startled suddenly by a boulder levitating and shifting position? If so, then you know that it is a seal that has become aware of you.

Winter is the peak time for seal arrival on our Block Island beaches, which leads to lots of questions. What species? Why are they here? How many seals are there around Block Island? Is the seal watching me from the water? Why is it perched on that rock in that ridiculous yoga-like banana pose? Why is it lying on the beach so far from the water’s edge? Should I shoo it back into the water? Is it sick or hurt? What should I do, or who should I call?

Some of these questions have easy answers, some have more complex answers. Most of the seals that arrive in the winter are harbor seals, but in recent years the number of gray seals has been increasing. In fact, a significant group (not quite a colony yet) of grays seem to be staking a claim at Sandy Point. Harp and hooded seals occasionally wander south and show up on Block Island beaches. These species are often referred to as ice seals and spend much of their lives in the Arctic and on sea ice. With the enactment of the Marine Mammals Protection Act in 1972, seals have been making a big comeback throughout New England coastal waters, and thus are looking for more areas to winter, rest, and birth. If you encounter a seal on the beach, you should stay at least 150 feet away from them, keep your dog away, and, no, you should not feed them or encourage them back into the water.

Generally, seals are not in trouble when you see them on the beach, they have simply hauled out to rest. They tend to haul out to the beach, or atop boulders or floating structures, during low tides at least once a day. Mostly just “lumped” on boulders, seals will also arch their body into a banana pose so that they can more efficiently warm their heads and flippers, which do not have as much protective fat as the rest of their body. Seals can also sleep in the water in a position called bottling: submerged vertically with their heads out of the water for breathing while asleep.

Occasionally, though, you will see a seal that is in need of assistance. If you notice a seal on the beach in the same place for more than twenty-four hours, a seal that is eating rocks or sand, or a seal that has obvious injuries, please contact the Mystic Aquarium’s Animal Rescue Program. The Aquarium staffs a 24-hour hotline that triggers a call out to island volunteers who help the Aquarium’s marine biologists determine how to best help the animal. You can reach this hotline at (860) 572-5955 ext. 107.

Each season brings a specialized group of animals to our island environment, and winter is the time for seals. We can enjoy their inquisitive nature from afar by giving them wide berth when discovered hauled out on the beach; or, when you notice them spy-hopping (submerged vertically while actively observing you) enjoy the wonderment of the two of you watching each other.

To learn more about seals on and around Block Island, and ongoing efforts to document the occurrence of seals, join us for a seal monitoring walk on Monday, Jan. 21 at 1 p.m. at Cormorant Cove.

A spotting scope for better viewing will be available.

Clair Stover is the Block Island Conservancy’s Executive Director and Kim Gaffett  is the The Nature Conservancy’s Ocean View Foundation’s Naturalist.

“Ask the Conservancy” is a series of outreach activities provided by Block Island Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy that will offer advice and assistance that will help us all make thoughtful decisions about how we live on the island because together, our actions can benefit the whole island’s ecosystem. These activities include everything from occasional articles in The Block Island Times, to walks on example properties, to providing information about how we can all play a role in supporting the island’s plant and wildlife.

We welcome the opportunity to speak with you about your property “house keeping” or other questions you might have about the island’s nature. Whether you need help with species identification or research, or just want feedback and an opportunity to discuss options and approaches to best steward your property, please give us a call or send an email. Clair Stover can be reached at (860) 808-9867/stover@biconservancy.org, or Kim Gaffett at (401) 595-7055/kim.gaffett@tnc.org.

Everyone — regardless of how small an area we oversee — can make a difference and have a role to play in keeping our Block Island beautiful and ecologically diverse.