Seeking Seals in New York Harbor

It was my first time out on a boat in the harbor. There was a brisk wind on the water, but it was easy to enjoy the wonderful view of the city on this chilly, but sunny late-winter's day.

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It was my first time out on a boat in the harbor. There was a brisk wind on the water, but it was easy to enjoy the wonderful view of the city on this chilly, but sunny late-winter’s day. The Audubon Winter EcoCruise gave me the simple joy of being out on the water in sunshine, surrounded by nature; it broadened my horizons and gave me a whole different impression of New York City.

The cruise took us from Pier 17 on the southern edge of Manhattan out to the western edge of Brooklyn. We turned back when we reached the Verrazano Bridge, crossing by the shores of Governor’s Island and Staten Island.

Near Governor’s Island and Brooklyn’s shores, we saw herring gulls, a great black-backed gull (the largest gull in the world), scaup, great cormorants, double crested cormorants, and common loons. When we got near Staten Island we saw common merganser, red-breasted merganser, and the longtailed duck. We also saw peregrine falcons nesting on the Verrazano Bridge.

The number of birds on the water was a good sign that there were a lot of fish nearby, according to our guide.

However, we didn’t see many harbor seals. There were sightings of a few seals popping their heads out of the water, but considerably less than I expected. Seal migration patterns show that they are typically in the harbor from late November to around mid-March, so there should be a good number of them still in the harbor. According to the New York Aquarium, the approximate population of seals in the harbor is around 20. The harbor seal is also the most abundant seal species in the world, and other animals in their ecosystem (i.e. birds, fish) are plentiful, so actually, the question becomes: why are there so few seals in our harbor?

The seals around New York City slowly disappeared during the 19th century due to over-hunting and human settlement, and the increase in pollution from busy industries. Seals were often hunted because they were considered fishing competitors. Over time, pollution poisoned the water and the fish, forcing the seals to find food elsewhere. And toxins were found in seals, too, accumulating through the fish they ate. Although toxins are now prohibited from being released into the harbor, some take an extremely long time to break down. As a result of the seals disappearing, their natural predators, sharks, also left the harbor.

The turn around came after the Clean Water Act became law in 1972, and the harbor gradually became cleaner. In addition, the Marine Mammal Protection Act ensured that seals could not be hunted or harassed. As the new laws took effect, the ecosystem began rebuilding itself.

Although the seal population in the harbor is making a comeback, the shark population is not. Sharks are still seen in the open ocean, but rarely come into the harbor, and this has given seals an even better chance to recover.

The EcoCruise was a wonderful chance to view New York fauna in its natural environment and to follow the changes as weather and water quality and human interest continue to affect all forms of life here in the Big Apple. And I look forward to going again next year, to see if there are more seals!

Fauna Mahootian is a student at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan.

Photo by Maureen Drennan