Seal-Watching By Kayak off Fishers Island

"There's one!" my friend Spyros "Spy" Barres called, peering from the cockpit of a tandem kayak toward a tiny rock islet called East Clump just north of Fishers Island.

"I see two!" I replied, paddling alongside him.

Jenna Cho, in the bow of the vessel Spy piloted, dropped her paddle and scrambled to retrieve a camera from a waterproof pouch, but by the time she aimed it the seals had slipped off the rocks into the chop of Fishers Island Sound.

In seconds, a shiny black head popped up from the waves 50 yards off our bows, and instantly ducked back under before Jenna could click the shutter.

"Trying to photograph seals is like playing Whack-A-Mole," I told her. (I know, I’ve used that line before, but I can’t help myself).

The three of us had started paddling an hour earlier from Esker Point Beach in Noank, on what has been one of my favorite late fall-winter outings: seal-watching by kayak.

Thousands of the pinnipeds migrate annually from the Gulf of Maine to Fishers Island and Long Island sounds, where they spend the cold-weather months before swimming back home in spring. For years friends and I have been paddling out to view them off Fishers Island, but you can find seals just about anywhere – the rocky coastline and islands all along the Connecticut shore as far west as Norwalk.

The most common are harbor seals, which have spotted coats that vary in color from gray to brown, but in the past couple of years I've begun noticing harp and hooded seals, Arctic species that migrate from Newfoundland and other Canadian climes.

Most of these Northern visitors don’t arrive until January or February, but we spotted one hooded seal basking on a rock off Hungry Point near the eastern tip of Fishers Island, where most of the marine mammals congregate.

The three of us picked an unseasonably mild day to cross Fishers Island Sound, with temperatures climbing into the 50s. A fresh north breeze propelled us quickly out of Palmer Cove, past Mouse Island and Whaleback Rock, and into the open waters of the sound.

Because the tide neared the end of the flood, the current clashed with the wind, roiling a light chop over shoals midway between the Connecticut coast and Fishers’ north shore.

“I hope the wind falls off before we return,” I said. “Otherwise, it’s going to be a long paddle back.”

Normally I head due south toward West Harbor on Fishers, because seals often climb onto West Clump just off Clay Point, but with the tide nearly high this tiny rock formation would be underwater, so we decided to steer east instead to Hungry Point, about 3.5 miles from Esker Point as the crow flies but somewhat longer as the kayak meanders.

We beached our boats in a small cove a couple hundred yards west of the point, where about a dozen seals basked in the sun. Later in the season more than 100 likely will gather here, diving for fish, swimming idly and sprawling on the rocks.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits humans from coming closer than 50 yards, but seals evidently don’t abide by these regulations and often swim much nearer. One popped up about 10 feet from Spy and Jenna’s boat and instantly dove back under with a great splash.

Jenna, of course, had no time to take a picture. Without a long lens and a tripod she might as well have been trying to photograph a raindrop or a frog catching a fly. After a while she stowed the camera.

I don’t like to linger when seal-watching, because even through the animals appear curious and unthreatened I still feel like an intruder. I’d rather have the animals learn to keep their distance because some fishermen, upset by flippered rivals, have been known to shoot at seals, even though it’s a federal crime to harm them.

Often times I’ve looked over my shoulder to see seals swimming behind me on the return trip, and occasionally have paddled backwards so I can watch them, but the other day I was more concerned about wind and tide – then starting its ebb – so we didn’t tarry.

Happily, the breeze died down, the seas remained calm and we enjoyed a glorious December afternoon, sharing the water with only one sailboat and two fishing boats.

A number of charter boats and organizations offer winter seal-watching excursions, and of course you can always pay to see them at the aquarium, but for my money, I’ll stick to kayaking.

Just remember – keep your distance, and don’t rely exclusively on the forecast to stay safe on the sound in winter, when conditions can change in a heartbeat. I may be watching seals, but I keep one eye on flagpoles on shore as well as the horizon.

As Dylan observed, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

 

 

 

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

R.I.P. Cecil the Lion: Let's Make the Trophy Hunter an Endangered Species

The international outrage sparked by an American trophy hunter’s killing of Cecil, Zimbabwe’s beloved lion, justifiably vilifies the despicable practice of slaughtering wildlife for sport – but it also exposes the human...

All Who Wander Are Not Lost: Searching For The Elusive South Bog Stream In Rangeley, Maine

"Head for that tree stump," I instructed authoritatively one afternoon earlier this week, as if I knew for sure where we should be heading. I have learned to exude confidence when giving directions on any expedition, even...

Scott Jurek's 'Reward' For Breaking Appalachian Trail Speed Record: Three Summonses

When internationally celebrated speedster Scott Jurek scrambled last Sunday to the 5,269-foot summit of Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, he broke the record for the fastest assisted hike of the 2,189-mile...

No Swimming at Seaside: What’s Next? No Hiking at Bluff Point?

Most of the time I’m reasonably scrupulous about abiding by government regulations.

Training For Mystic Sharkfest: The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Swimmer

Among the many benefits of active recreation is hanging out with friends – which of course you can do at a bar, pizza parlor or coffee shop, but since most of my pals prefer to spend their leisure time on the trail or water, we...

Stung By Wasps AND Suffering From Lyme Disease: I Can't Catch A Break

You know that funny, itchy feeling when something is crawling around or worse, lodged where it doesn’t belong?

Which Is Worse: Getting Devoured By A Grizzly Bear Or A Great White Shark?

During years of roaming hither and yon on land and sea, I’ve been chased by a grizzly bear, nearly trampled by stampeding yaks, charged by a bull, attacked by swarms of hornets and almost struck by a copperhead – but what...

A Whitewater Dream Taking Shape in Willimantic

Asked to name the best whitewater kayaking and canoeing stretches in Connecticut, most paddlers would single out a gnarly, 2.6-mile section of Class IV rapids on the Housatonic River from Bulls Bridge Dam to Gaylordville, or Diana's Pool...

My War With Canada Geese

Years ago I looked forward to autumn, not so much for the kaleidoscopic foliage but because the evening serenade of migrating Canada geese that lulled me to sleep.

Take A Hike Or A Paddle June 6-7 During Connecticut Trails Weekend

In a culture that celebrates virtually every pastime and passion – from National Kazoo Day Jan. 28 to Public Sleeping Day Feb. 28 to Moldy Cheese Day Oct. 9 – we outdoor enthusiasts finally get our day in the sun on June 6,...

A Fourth Straight Victory At The Essex Boat Race in Massachusetts: Paddling In A Small Division Pays Off

As Ian Frenkel and I paddled exuberantly toward the finish line last Saturday at the Essex River Race in Essex, Mass., I thought about what it had taken to pull off our fourth consecutive tandem sea kayaking victory.

Hiking The Continental Divide Trail From Mexico To Canada: 'It Is Fun Even When It's Miserable'

Applying the ancient Chinese proverb, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," Mystic native Hilary Sueoka and her boyfriend, Dan Stedman, should have taken three steps April 22 when they set out on their...

Turtles And Osprey And Otters, Oh My – So Much To See By Kayak

The turtle has an ill-deserved reputation for lethargy.

The Hills Are Alive With The Sound Of Dirt Bikes

Fingernails across a chalk board, a baby crying, a dog barking incessantly – all are music to my ears compared to the whine of a dirt bike tearing through the forest.