December is one of my favorite months of the year – not only because of the holidays, but because it’s the ideal time to go in search of harbor seals along the Rhode Island coastline. And they’re usually easy to find.
A walk out to Rome Point in North Kingstown will often turn up several dozen seals hauled out on the rocks at low tide. And those who scan the waters at Beavertail or Sachuest Point or Brenton Point will often be rewarded with good looks at seals bobbing in the water, their puppy-dog eyes as sweet as a Christmas cookie. Better yet, climb aboard a Save the Bay boat in Newport Harbor for a seal tour around Rose Island. Excellent views of seals are almost guaranteed.
This winter is an especially apropos time to go in seek of harbor seals, since the animals were designated as Rhode Island’s official state marine mammal in legislation passed last summer by the General Assembly and signed by the governor.
They appear to be an excellent choice. Their typical pose while hauled out on the rocks has been described as “a happy banana,” with head and tail curled upward. And on close-up inspection, they often look to have a smile on their face. It’s no wonder that a cross-section of business and environmental groups got behind the legislation.
The seals begin to arrive in Rhode Island waters each year in early October and peak in March. By the end of April, all have left for the coast of Maine and the Canadian Maritimes to breed. Little is known about their ecology while they’re here, but it’s certain that they spend plenty of time lounging around conspicuously.
During an informal survey of seals in Narragansett Bay last March, volunteers with Save the Bay, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve counted a record high 603 seals at 26 sites, topping the previous record of 569 set in 2011.
The large harbor seal population in Rhode Island is probably attributable, in part, to the improved water quality in the bay and the availability of food – though it’s uncertain what they even eat while they’re here.
An even bigger factor is the success of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, a federal law that prohibits the killing and harassing of seals, whales and other marine mammals. Seals were quite rare prior to passage of the act, and it wasn’t uncommon for boaters to shoot seals for fun. The states of Massachusetts and Maine even paid a bounty for each seal killed because it was thought the animals had an adverse effect on the commercial fishing industry. In the intervening 55 years, harbor seal numbers have skyrocketed.
But not all the news is good. University of Rhode Island marine mammal researcher Robert Kenney said that even though seal numbers in local waters are high, scientists suspect that the overall population in the region has begun to decline. The culprit may be another wildlife success story -- gray seals -- a larger species whose population is booming on Cape Cod and elsewhere. It’s unlikely, however, that harbor seals will disappear from our waters.
If you go in search of our state marine mammal this winter, don’t get too close or let your dogs bark at them. It’s easy to spook seals from their resting sites, which forces them to waste precious energy. Instead, watch from afar and appreciate Rhode Island’s newest wildlife ambassador.
This article first appeared in the Independent on December 15, 2016.