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Revisiting the great Fishers Island seal ‘hunt’

One frigid, blustery day more than a year ago, when our group of kayakers ventured off Noank into a churning Fishers Island Sound, Elyse Landesberg impatiently beseeched, “Where are the seals?”

I pointed my paddle past an expanse of whitecaps toward Hungry Point, a rocky peninsula on the north shore of Fishers Island, nearly five miles distant.

“Out there,” I replied, cinching my spray skirt tighter.

Elyse’s shoulders sagged. None of us had to state the obvious, that conditions were too gnarly to attempt an open-water crossing that day. Instead, we wound up hugging the coast, poking into coves and confining ourselves to the protected Mystic River — no great hardship, because southeastern Connecticut is one of the state’s most appealing kayaking destinations, inshore or offshore.

“Not to worry,” I consoled her, “we’ll go out to see the seals one day.”

What with COVID, unfavorable forecasts and scheduling conflicts, it wasn’t until two weeks ago, the first full day of spring, that our crew finally could make do on that promise.

For decades, friends and I have been paddling out to Fishers to view seals that migrate here in winter from the Gulf of Maine and points north. Marine biologists report that as many as 150 form a colony at Hungry Point, most arriving in late fall and departing in mid-spring.

They are among thousands that turn up seasonally all along the shoreline of Fishers Island and Long Island sounds, feeding on herring, menhaden, flounder and other fish.

Conditions could not have more sublime on our recent outing: light winds, sunny skies and extraordinarily calm seas that looked more like a mill pond than an arm of the Atlantic Ocean.

“A perfect day!” proclaimed Bob Ten Eyck, paddling next to me. Rounding out our six-person flotilla were Curt Andersen, Declan Nowak and Phil Warner.

We had launched from Williams Beach Park near the Mystic Y, and steered past the east side of Masons Island. The tide had just begun to flood, and we bucked a gentle current while squeezing beneath the Masons Island Road causeway.

At Curt’s urging, we veered between Ram Island and Latimer Point, slid under another causeway, and proceeded south between Dodges and Lyddy islands.

Here, the shoreline opens up, and we could gaze east toward Napatree Point in Rhode Island waters, south toward Fishers Island in New York Waters, and west toward Groton and New London.

Directly ahead, a scattering of rocks protruded above the surface: Cormorant Reef, Red Reef and White Rock.

Suddenly, Phil cried, “Seal! Two o’clock!”

A harbor seal basking atop a boulder, its back arched like a banana, peered languidly in our direction.

Elyse’s eyes grew as large as saucers, but she restrained herself from making a beeline toward the marine mammal. Federal guidelines advise humans to remain at least 50 yards from seals, a protected species.

As we departed, the seal slid into the water, and in less than a minute, its head popped up behind us.

We spun around, paddling backwards, and watched the animal follow for a hundred yards or so before swimming back toward its rocky perch.

“Not a bad start,” I said. “It’ll get even better at Hungry Point.”

Once past Ram Island, we paddled diagonally across the sound toward the eastern tip of Fishers, marveling at the tranquility. No boat wakes, no chop, no swirling, confused currents — not even in such typically turbulent areas around the Latimer Reef lighthouse and, farther southeast, Wicopesset Passage.

“You know …” Phil began — and I knew what he was thinking.

“Circumnav …” he continued. A paddle around Fishers Island is one of our favorite voyages — but usually in summer, and normally launching from Esker Point Beach in Noank, which makes for an 18-mile excursion.

Phil is of the too-much-is-never-enough school of kayaking; he wouldn’t have balked if one of us suggested gallivanting across the Atlantic to the Azores.

The rest of the group drew closer to discuss our itinerary.

On the plus side, circumnavigating Fishers would be an epic adventure in March. But the out-and-back route from Mystic would have boosted the distance to 22-plus miles. We also would have had to paddle through the notorious Race at full flood. Though all of us were wearing drysuits, the water temperature in the sound that day dipped below 40 degrees — not a good day for a swim.

Democracy, and reason, prevailed: We headed for Hungry Point, after a short detour into East Harbor.

Elyse could barely contain her excitement when we spotted more than a dozen seals hauled up on the rocks.

“Incredible!” she gushed.

We bobbed at a safe distance and watched them stretch out in the sun.

After about 15 minutes, Bob, Curt, Declan, Phil and I paddled ashore for a snack, but Elyse continued to drift in her kayak, eyes riveted on the seals.

She might still be out there if the rest of us hadn’t eventually realized that we had to start heading back to take advantage of a tailwind and flood tide.

“Well,” I asked, as we neared the end of what turned out to be an 11-mile paddle, “was it what you hoped for?”

“Better,” Elyse replied.

 

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