Pinnipeds

By JF Grodeska ~

The Conference, Pollution of Raritan Bay and Adjacent Interstate Waters, Third Session, New York, N.Y., June 13-14, 1967, Volume 1: stated that Sandy Hook Bay was contaminated with significant levels of coliform bacteria, indicating pervasive fecal matter in the water.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the bay was so polluted that it smelled. The water was murky and oxygen concentration levels low. Fish were harder to find and shellfish, the major industry around the bay, had to be decontaminated in purification plants before they could be sold at market.  

In 1972, Richard Nixon signed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act into law.  Conservation and the cleanup process had begun. Other environmental laws and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency quickly followed.  People of Sandy Hook Bay complied and worked hard to save their bay and their livelihoods. 

Now, in 2020, Sandy Hook bay sparkles with clean water and an abundance of sea life from baitfish to the occasional humpback whale.  The beaches are once again crowded, local restaurants flourish and boaters abound.  

In the winter, another visitor journeys to Sandy Hook Bay to enjoy its sandy beaches and abundance of sea life.  This visitor is the Atlantic Harbor Seal. These beautiful pinnipeds can be seen sunning themselves on Skeleton Island beach, off the bay side of Sandy Hook from December to March. 

Harbor Seals are found from Greenland to the Carolinas on the east coast of the United States.  Their scientific name is Phoca vitulina which, translated from Latin, means “Sea Dog”. Their whiskered cheeks and soft brown eyes certainly make the resemble the family pet.  When seals haul-out at Sandy Hook, they can be found on beaches, mudflats and ice flows. They can grow to be about five feet long and weigh as much a two hundred pounds. Harbor Seals give birth to a single pup once a year, in April, and can live to twenty-five or thirty years.  They like to eat cod, mackerel, herring, shellfish, squid or octopus. 

Harbor Seals spend most of their lives in the water, venturing onto land to give birth and raise their young.  They even can sleep in the water but wake up frequently to head to the surface for a breath. Seals are amazing swimmers and propel themselves through the water at breakneck speeds.  They can dive to one thousand, five hundred feet for up to forty minutes before surfacing.

If you go to Sandy Hook in search of Harbor Seals on their vacation, there are some things to keep in mind.  Seals are carnivorous animals with sharp teeth and react to threats with a flight or fight philosophy. Although Harbor Seals do not give birth at Sandy Hook, humans can disrupt there hunting or feeding.  Seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act since the early 1970s. The legal distance from seal to human is 100 ft.  

Seals are social animals and can be seen in large groups on Skeleton Island sunning themselves.  It is rare to see a seal all alone unless it is injured or needs help. If you encounter a seal by itself, please contact the Sandy Hook Ranger Station for help. 

Should you wish to visit Sandy Hook to observe the harbor seals, Gateway National Park offers a ranger-guided walk on January 25 at 10 AM.    

For more information:  https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/event-details.htm?id=9975ABA3-E2F2-CC5E-4E75F592CB3E2CA0

To learn more about the seals of Sandy Hook Bay:  https://www.nps.gov/gate/learn/nature/upload/Seals-in-Sandy-Hook-Waters.pdf

To learn more about how to interact responsibly with the seals of Sandy Hook Bay:  https://www.savecoastalwildlife.org/save-the-seals-of-sandy-hook-bay

To find out about conservation efforts to keep Sandy Hook and Raritan Bays clean and safe:  https://www.nynjbaykeeper.org/