2014-02-13 / News

Seal sightseeing tours planned

By Ken Shane

Far left, Jim Mariani will captain Elizabeth Morris on three seal watch tours next week. Left, harbor seals relax on rocks in Narragansett Bay. Below, the Elizabeth Morris. 
Courtesy / Save The Bay Far left, Jim Mariani will captain Elizabeth Morris on three seal watch tours next week. Left, harbor seals relax on rocks in Narragansett Bay. Below, the Elizabeth Morris. Courtesy / Save The Bay Jamestown residents will soon have the opportunity to see seals up close and personal in their natural habitat.

Three seal watch tours are scheduled to depart from Conanicut Marine later this month. The harbor cruises are free for children thanks to a donation from the Jamestown 1st Day Plunge.

“With many kids not having the opportunity to go off skiing, or to go to Florida during February vacation, the thought came to mind,” said Bob Bailey, head organizer of the plunge.

Joe Mariani is an educational specialist for Save The Bay. He will be at the helm of the 46-foot research vessel for the tours. The custom boat, Elizabeth Morris, has a capacity of 40 people. Mariani said the one-hour trips will take passengers to view seals on the rocks in areas near the Newport Bridge.

“We’ll be looking for harbor seals mainly, as well as gray seals, hauled out on the rocks and swimming in the water,” he said.

According to Mariani, Narragansett Bay is home to hundreds of seals. They include harbor seals, gray seals, harp seals and hooded sales. The predominant species is the harbor seal, which is approximately

5 to 6 feet long and weighs between 150 to 200 pounds. The seals migrate to Narragansett Bay from Maine and Canada, and are in Rhode Island from November to April. They inhabit the entire bay, and Mariani said he saw harbor seals as far north as Providence recently.

Mariani said the seals seem to concentrate more in certain areas of the bay, especially on Rose Island.

“We see good numbers of them,” he said. “On some trips we see up to 40 or 50 at one time.”

According to Mariani, the primary danger to seals are great white sharks and orca whales. That’s why Narragansett Bay is such a popular hangout, says Mariani. Those types of predators are not generally seen in local waters. Once the seals come into the bay, they have a reliable food source and are safe from killers.

“They are opportunistic feeders,” Mariani said. “They feed on just about anything. Squid, herring and even crustaceans like lobsters.”

Despite changes to the bay’s fisheries, Mariani said the seal population has remained consistent. That indicates there is plenty of food for the marine mammals. Recent surveys have sighted as many as 500 seals in the bay, and there are thought to be many more that aren’t spotted during the studies.

Because seals are wary of boat traffic and can move fast, they are not as vulnerable to colliding with a boat as manatees are in southern waters. Mariani cited the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, put in place in 1972, making it illegal to kill, harm or harass any marine mammal.

“We don’t want to change their behavior,” Mariani said. “So when we take people on field tours, we stay a good distance away. We tell people that scaring the seals and making them move off the rocks is harassing them. We try to bring people close enough to see them, but we work hard not to disturb their behavior.”

The Elizabeth Morris isn’t enclosed, so seal watchers are advised to dress warmly for the tours. Binoculars will be offered on board, but passengers are welcome to bring their own.

“It’s a great opportunity to see one of Narragansett Bay’s most common marine mammals,” Mariani said.

Adults are asked to pay $10. The money will be used to cover the cost of hot chocolate and donuts that will be served at the rec center before and after each cruise. Island Scoop is providing the refreshments.

“If it works out well, maybe this is something we can plan annually with Save The Bay,” Bailey said.

The tours will be held on Thursday, Feb. 20, at 2 p.m., and on Saturday, Feb. 22, at 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. The Saturday tours will be preceded by a seminar on seals at the recreation center. The presentation begins at 1:30 p.m.

Space is limited. Anyone interested can sign up at the rec center. All tour parties will meet at the recreation center 15 minutes prior to departure from East Ferry.

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