2006-12-28 / News

Harbor seals make the bay home for the holidays

By Michaela Kennedy

A chilly, foggy day offered a mysterious backdrop to a jovial crew of seal watchers on the M/ V Alletta Morris last Saturday, Dec. 23. Co-ordinated by Save The Bay and the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation, the seal watching cruise offers an adventurous and educational glimpse into winter marine life on the bay.

“We’re here for seals, yeah!” says volunteer narrator Reada Evans, education director at the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation.

Harbor seals relax, eat and sleep on rocks dotted throughout Narragansett Bay. The boat takes guests on a short ride to the northern side of Rose Island, where boulders stick up at low tide. The rocks provide a place for the seals to rest and nap. Seals laze about on the large flat spaces as others float in the water nearby.

Evans has ready answers to all the frequently asked questions about seals wintering locally and why they come here. “Marine mammals happen to like it when it’s cold,” she notes. Evans also notes that with the warmer temperatures lately, the seals prefer even chillier weather, and toward the end of April, the seals migrate north, where the water stays cold all summer.

Other reasons why they like to come here is that no natural predators such as whales or sharks bother them, and that the food supply is fine. Large schools of herring in the bay provide the seals plenty to eat. “Good restaurants!” yells one of the passengers. This time of year anywhere

from half a dozen to 20 or more seals lounge around the rocks to the north of Rose Island. “The biggest number we’ve seen is 150,” says Evans. She offers insight into the history of the harbor seals and a comprehensive overview of Rose Island during the tour.

Eric Pfirrmann, lead captain from Save The Bay, takes most tours out. Last weekend, Robert Hancock captained the Save The Bay vessel and demonstrated with his baseball cap a hooded seal blowing air.

The harbor seal population has grown tremendously in the last 15 years, thanks to a law passed in 1993 that banned the taking of marine mammals in protected state waters. “I hear a lot of people say they grew up here, but didn’t know there were any seals,” says Evans. Because of hunting, among other factors, the seals were scarce locally for almost 200 years, right up until the 1990s, Evans adds.

Alison Bubly, a teenager from Somerset, Mass., and her father Gary Bubly took a 40-minute drive to board the cruise. Bubly plans to volunteer her time on the boat as part of her community service requirements for high school. Her mother showed her some brochures about the cruise, and Bubly called about the volunteer program. “I like being on the ocean,” she adds.

An extended family filled up most of the seats on the vessel, and they agreed it was a group idea to go on the excursion. Cousins, Kenneth Martin, 7, from Chicago, and local Leah Ribner-Martin, 5, gripped the port rail, eyes scanning the water for bobbing, whiskered heads. “I see them in the banana position!” says Martin, pointing to the sprawling mammals. Martin had paid close attention to Evan’s lecture about seal varieties and their preferred prone position.

Upcoming cruises this week will run on Thursday and Friday, Dec. 28 and 29, at 10 a.m. from Bowen’s Landing in Newport. Weekend cruises on Dec. 30 and 31 will depart at 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. For a full season schedule, go online to www.savebay.org.

Regular tickets cost $20 per person. Discounts of $5 are available for seniors, children and members of Save The Bay and the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation. For more information, call 324-6020.

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