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    Tuesday, March 05, 2024

    Watching seals watching kayakers off Fishers Island

    Seals appear for an instant before diving back underwater. (Robin Francis)
    Seals appear for an instant before diving back underwater. (Robin Francis)
    Kayakers watch for seals off Fishers Island. (Steve Fagin)

    “Hey, look! There’s one following us!” Robin Francis exclaimed.

    The rest of our kayak group quickly spun around, but of course, the elusive seal had already ducked below the surface. We might as well have been trying to glimpse a shooting star after it flashed across the sky.

    Seal-watching in Fishers Island Sound can be like searching for the Loch Ness Monster – spotting a dark shiny shape that often turns out to be a false alarm, particularly on a misty morning in late January.

    “What’s that? Two o’clock!” Phil Warner shouted, pointing with his paddle. “…Oh, wait… only a buoy.”

    Robin, Phil, Declan Nowak, my son, Tom and I were on a favorite seasonal voyage last Saturday, launching from Esker Point in Noank, en route to Fishers Island, where a large colony of harbor seals migrates for the winter from the Gulf of Maine and points north.

    Observing wild animals in their natural setting is always a treat, but I was happy simply to be paddling on a calm day in mid-winter, when we had the water almost exclusively to ourselves. The only other vessels – a tugboat that pulled an enormous barge laden with a crane and construction equipment – were chugging in our direction.

    They were still a mile east of us, cutting between Watch Hill, R.I. and Wicopesset Island in New York waters, but we decided to give them a wide berth. The five of us steered behind shoals off Hungry Point near the eastern tip of Fishers, where the tug and barge couldn’t navigate, and where we knew seals often congregate.

    Sure enough, several were hauled out on rocks, resting on bellies with backs arched. Their curved shape often led mariners of yore to mistake them for mermaids.

    “Let’s give them some space,” Tom urged, reminding us that seals feel threatened when humans approach and will have to waste energy by sliding back in the water. Federal guidelines recommend keeping at least 50 yards away from seals and other marine mammals.

    Though we maintained our distance, several seals did slither down from rocky perches, swim underwater toward us, and pop up periodically for a nanosecond. Robin did manage to take a few fuzzy pictures, but I didn’t feel like playing photographic whack-a-mole, so just drifted and watched.

    Several seals quickly figured out which way we were looking and swam behind us, to avoid making eye contact. We could have foiled them by paddling backwards but felt no need to prolong our intrusion. Besides, the wind picked up, tidal current began to ebb, and we still had to paddle four miles back across the sound to Esker Point. Time to head home.

    “Nice to enjoy a drama-free voyage,” I said, as we steered northwest toward the Connecticut shore, aiming toward the steeple of Noank Baptist Church. I didn’t need to remind my companions that strong gusts had suddenly kicked up rough seas on one or two past excursions, which made the paddle back more challenging than anticipated.

    We’ve learned never to take voyages across the sound lightly, especially in winter. Before setting out, we double-checked the weather, the tides, and agreed on a course. All of us have considerable cold-weather kayaking experience and wore drysuits and life jackets, designed to keep overboard paddlers alive and afloat.

    Happily, none of that gear needed to be employed last Saturday, and we enjoyed a relaxing trip back to Esker, while savoring glorious views of the Connecticut shoreline: Sandy Point, Barn Island, Stonington Borough, Wamphassuc Point, Lords Point, Enders Island, Ram Island, Masons Island, Morgan Point, and finally, Esker Point.

    The ebb had picked up in Palmer Cove, so we pushed against the tide to reach the public access and parking lot on the north side of the Groton Long Point Road bridge.

    Smiles and handshakes all around. No matter how wonderful the paddle, it always feels good to set foot on terra firma.

    Great conditions, great company, great paddling, great seal-watching – can’t do any better on the last Saturday in January.

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