Thursday, October 20, 2016

Top 5 Questions About Save The Bay's Seal Watch Tours

By Eric Pfirrmann, Lead Captain at Save The Bay

It’s October and Seal Watch season is underway! As Save The Bay and I begin our 16th season, I thought I would share the top five questions about our trips.

Q: What kind of seals will we see?

A: Harbor Seals. About 99% of the seals we see are Harbor Seals. It makes sense. They are the most common marine mammal in New England, and they are cool. Roughly human sized: say 4-6 feet, 125 -250 lbs. They are cute, sometimes playful, sometimes lazy and always entertaining.

Toward the end of Cape Cod and on Nantucket, there is a large, year-round colony of Grey Seals, and we do see a couple of these big seals every year, but it is not a common occurrence. More exotic ice seals, like Harp Seals, and even juvenile Hooded Seals, are also occasional visitors to Rhode Island, but I cannot confirm that I have ever seen either on a seal watch.

Q: Why don’t you run Seal Watch Cruises in the summer time?

A: My answer is: I’d love to! But a Seal Watch Cruise without seals is just a nice day on the Bay. If we want to see seals, we need to head out when they are here, and for Rhode Island, that’s the cooler months.

Our Harbor Seals are migratory. They depart our area by the first week of May and head anywhere from the Maine/New Hampshire border on up through Maritime Canada. The females leave first to have their pups along the rocky shores. The pups will be with them for just 4-6 weeks, or sometimes as late as the beginning of July. The adult males follow a couple of weeks later. They set up and fight over territories near where the females are tending their pups, because mating will occur as soon as the females leave their pups for good. The juveniles leave the Bay last. I'm convinced they look up one day and wonder where everyone else went.

Harbor seals spend the rest of the summer feeding on stocks of herring, mackerel, and menhaden (or pogy as it is called up there.) As the summer fades, these fish begin their annual migration south. And slowly but surely, the seals follow. We often think of the migration game as animals in search of warmer weather, but most times they are simply following the food. Even the fish are following their food. Plankton feeders like menhaden and herring ultimately depend on the sun and the presence of enough phytoplankton and Zooplankton. There aren’t many hours of sun in those northern latitudes, so they head south.

Luckily for us it’s Fall and seal season is starting back up. Reports of Harbor Seal sightings usually begin in sometime in September, with numbers gradually increasing throughout October, November and December. In Narragansett Bay the numbers peak in late February or early March. Soon after that, it will be April again. The sun will rise higher and longer, the fish will move, and the seals will follow. By the first week of May, they will all be gone and once again we will hear, “So why don’t you run Seal Watch Cruises in the summer time?”

Q: Where are our trips?

A: We run out of three locations: Newport, Westerly and Fall River. Newport trips depart from Bowen’s Ferry Landing at the end of Market Square. These are one-hour trips out to the area just south of the Newport Bridge near Rose Island. Sights include Newport Harbor, Rose Island Lighthouse, Clingstone and the beautiful lower Bay. This area is one of the best seal haulout sites in Narragansett Bay. These trips run Saturdays, Sundays and school vacation days from mid-November through April. These trips are tide dependent; seals like low tide for hauling out, so departure times vary.

Westerly trips depart from Viking Marina on Margin Street. These are 90-minute trips down the stunning Pawcatuck River and into Little Narragansett Bay. Fantastic fall foliage, majestic homes and idyllic marshes line the shores. If you haven’t been down the Pawcatuck before, you need to join us for a cruise. It really is a Rhode Island must do. These trips run at 11 a.m. every Saturday from October 15 through December 31 and over the December school vacation. Also, check out our trips with special guest speakers from Mystic Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Stranding Team!

Fall River is our third location, with tours running on Saturdays March 18 through April 8, 2017 from Borden Light Marina. These are 75-minute trips spotting seals at Spar Island in Mount Hope Bay. We also check out the lower Taunton River and get up close and personal with the historic ships in Battleship Cove!

Q: Seals are great but what other wildlife can we see? Will we see whales?

A: Seal are great, but there is a ton more going on for us to see on our trips, birds especially. Wintering sea ducks like Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, Eider, Mergansers and Loons are always possible. More rare sightings include Snowy Owls and Bald Eagles. In April, we can see nesting birds like American Oystercatchers, Egrets and Heron.

Will we see a whale?  I used to say no, but after last year’s mid-winter visit to Narragansett Bay by a Humpback whale, I’ll never say never again!

Q: Will we get cold?

A: Our trips are definitely an outdoor activity, but we don’t freeze anyone! Each of our boats has a roof with curtains so we are well protected from the wind, but appropriate gear like hats, gloves and warm footwear are suggested for mid-winter cruises. We go out most days, but in real inclement weather we will cancel. Your safety and comfort are our biggest concern!

See you out there!

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