"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.”