2007-12-13 / News

Harbor seals return to Narragansett Bay

By Michaela Kennedy

Harbor seals swim down from Canada to rest on the rocks around Rose Island Lighthouse in the winter. Harbor seals swim down from Canada to rest on the rocks around Rose Island Lighthouse in the winter. Narragansett Bay doesn't feel like a resort destination for those seeking warmth in winter, but the harbor seals that migrate south from Nova Scotia or other frigid winter regions seem to think it is.

Save the Bay and the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation have teamed up for the last seven years to take people out on the bay to see the visiting mammals. The tours have begun again, departing from Bowen's Wharf in Newport, with first-time as well as repeat guests ready to ride the waves. While many travelers racing across the Newport Bridge catch only a fleeting glimpse of the sleek creatures, those who venture out onto the water are rewarded with a close-up seal encounter.

Eric Pfirrmann is the lead captain for the award-winning seal watch tours. Pfirrmann grins as guests board the M/V Alletta Morris, the motor vessel that carries adventuresome humans for a visit to the daily shows put on by the seals. The captain has made countless trips out to see the seals, but he never tires of the one-hour cruise. "Every time I go out, I get excited to see the seals," he says.

The weather can be challenging, with conditions a little different every trip. "We've been out in rain and sleet, snow and fog, but it doesn't always change how the seals act," Pfirrmann notes. The seal watch tour does not necessarily attract just the outdoors type, but will attract anyone with a curiosity about the mammals, he adds.

The frolicking fish mongers were gone from the bay for so long that locals now have a hard time believing the seals are out there. "You'd be amazed how many people, longtime Jamestowners for example, have never seen them," Pfirrmann continues. "Since their population started to rise again in the 80s and 90s, people almost refuse to believe it's true."

Prior to 1972, seal hunting was allowed to eliminate a competitor for fish. "Some states actually had bounties on seals," Pfirrmann notes. Thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act enacted in 1972, however, seals, along with all other marine mammals, are no longer massacred to the edge of extinction. They are protected as a valuable natural resource.

Seals are opportunists, and will eat just about anything that wiggles in the water, according to Pfirrmann. Yet the marine mammals have been around for thousands of years and are part of the environment, as compared to the ever-growing fish harvesting of recent decades. "A lot of times natural predators get blamed for depletions," he adds

Every day, a few more seals show up on the rocks off Rose Island, eager to relax after their journey from up north. Low tide allows them more room to lollygag on the boulders, resting in between playful swims and herring feasts. Reada Evans, educational director for the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation, has already counted more than a dozen seals sunning themselves on the rocks near the island. She suspects a few hundred more will show up in the bay by mid-winter.

When asked what kind of activity guests can expect to observe, Evans says that viewing seals at rest is a good thing. "We want to see them lazing around," she emphasizes. Low tide is their chance to climb out of the water and sleep in their crescent moon-shaped pose. "Sometimes they get crazy, and we see them jumping and frolicking," she adds.

Evans combines the opportunity of seal watching with historical and cultural snapshots of the Rose Island Lighthouse. The boat circles the island for a close-up view of the famed landmark on the tours. At least once a month, or for special bookings, the sight-seeing vessel lands on the island for a personalized lighthouse tour.

To check the schedule for seal watching tours, visit online at www.savebay.org, or call 324-6020 for information.

Return to top