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Great winter activity: Time with the seals

Feeling a bit of cabin fever? Spend some family time with seals that visit Rhode Island every year.

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By Danielle Gariglio

If winter means you and your kids get stuck inside with a bit of cabin fever, I have the perfect solution.

Every year in early fall, harbor seals make their way down to little old Rhody from Maine and Canada, following their favorite food, herring, and stay here until about the middle of April. Save The Bay’s Seal Tours give the whole family the perfect chance to get out on the water for fresh air and a look at these amazing critters in their natural habitat. So, grab your hats and gloves, bundle up, and set sail with Save The Bay.

Seals have always been my favorite part of any trip to the zoo, but when I took a Westerly Nature Cruise in October, seeing these remarkable creatures up close, uncensored, and intimately was truly a gift. I felt as though I was a guest in their home, and although it was only for an hour or so, I got to be a part of their world, watching them “haul out” and enjoying the beauty of their habitat.

Harbor seals haul out, or lay out, on land or rocks for 7-12 hours a day. You’re most likely to see them during low tide when they can hop up onto their favorite rocks, and the minute you see those bodies stretched out with noses and tails pointed up toward the sky, you’ll know right away you’re looking at a seal in its “happy banana pose.”

Although most people think these cuddly-looking seals are on the rocks to warm up, they’re actually doing just the opposite – cooling off. While swimming in our cold winter waters, the seals slow down their blood flow to keep their bodies incredibly warm. Hauling out is necessary to maintain their body temperature through thermal regulation. Even on the coldest winter days, you’ll see the happy harbor seals resting and cooling off.

The presence of harbor seals in our waters is a very good thing, according to Save The Bay’s lead captain, Eric Pfirrmann.

“They are an indicator species, which means if their numbers are good, then our local waters have sufficient food and water quality to support them,” he said, noting that their presence means the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 is working. “Due to bounty hunting in the 1800s through 1972, seal populations were very low. In the 1970s and 1980s, we would be lucky to see a handful of seals in the bay all winter. But since the passage of the law making it illegal to hunt or harass these creatures, their numbers have slowly returned to their historical range. That is a great success story.”

In fact, harbor seal populations have rebounded so much that the RI Legislature named them the official state marine mammal of Rhode Island in 2016.

Save The Bay’s boats remain respectfully (and legally) at least 50 yards from the seals, but with the binoculars on board or a pair of your own, you’ll still be close enough to see the seals’ whiskers and puppy-like faces.

As you peer over the horizon for these four-flippered pinnipeds, which means they have both front and rear flippers, look for rocks surrounded by water. Seals haul out on isolated rocks to stay away from the shoreline and avoid predators, which, in Narragansett Bay, do not include great white sharks, as some folks fear.

“Great whites prefer deeper water,” said Dan Blount, Save The Bay boat captain and educator. “They tend to stay near Cape Cod to feed on the large colony of grey seals that stay there year-round, tens of thousands of them. Grey seals are much larger than harbor seals, too.”

Once that first guest on your boat spots the first seal of the day, excitement abounds. Happiness, joy, and bliss are just some of the words I could use to describe the moment we all spotted our first seal. When you go on your own tour, know this: you’ll meet new people, learn new things, see the amazing nature in our very own bay, and wonder why you didn’t go sooner.

Visit www.savebay.org/seal or call 401-203-SEALS for details on taking a Save The Bay Seal Tour. Trips leave from Westerly, Newport, and Fall River.

Danielle Gariglio is a journalism student at the University of Rhode Island with an internship with Save The Bay.