Kayaking among seals: Don’t ‘flipper’ over

A seal basks in the sun on Middle Clump rocks in Fishers Island Sound Sunday. (Photo by Carl Tjerandsen)

 

Published in The Day January 26. 2018
By Steve Fagin

“There’s one! Nine o’clock!” Jen Bausch exclaimed from the cockpit of her kayak last Sunday.

All eyes darted east toward Ram Island off the Stonington coast barely in time to see the shiny head of a harbor seal poke above the surface of Fishers Island Sound, and then disappear into the depths of the slate-hued water.

“Pretty shy,” mused Bob Teneyck, gliding along in an elegant, wooden kayak next to me.

“Well, we’re off to a good start,” I said. Only 15 minutes earlier, we six paddlers had launched from Noank’s Esker Point for an afternoon excursion that has become one of my favorite seasonal adventures: seal-watching by kayak in winter. Spotting our quarry so soon was a promising harbinger of what awaited once we reached the region’s epicenter of seal activity, Hungry Point on Fishers Island in New York waters, less than four miles to the southeast.

Starting in late fall, hundreds of the marine mammals migrate from the Gulf of Maine and points north to this rocky haven, where they spend the next several months chowing down on mollusks, crustaceans, winter flounder and other cold-water species before swimming back home in spring. Thousands of other seals hunker down off Cape Cod, throughout Long Island Sound and as far south as Delaware — you often see them basking on rocks, galumphing along beaches and even scrambling up on boats and piers.

A few cautionary notes: The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits humans from coming closer than 50 yards to seals. You mustn’t threaten them, feed them or linger too long in their company, no matter how “friendly” and curious they appear. Though generally tolerant of humans, they are wild animals with extremely sharp teeth that can deliver a painful, bacteria-riddled bite if provoked.

(Photo by Carl Tjerandsen)

Also, venturing out on 32-degree water requires extra precautions and special protective gear — neoprene boots and mitts, and waterproof pants and jackets, if not a full drysuit. Our group also carried marine radios, bilge pumps, whistles and waterproof bags containing dry clothing.

Only the day before, two duck hunters died and another was hospitalized after their boat capsized in nearby Mumford Cove.

All six of us have considerable experience in cold-weather paddling. In addition to Bob and Jen, who live on Groton Long Point and in Mystic, respectively, joining us were Jen’s husband, Todd; Carl Tjerandsen of Ledyard; and Phil Warner of Hampden, Mass.

I’ve kayaked in windy, sub-zero temps when ice formed on paddle blades with each stroke, and have climbed New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington in blizzards, but I bow to Todd Bausch when it comes to enduring brutal conditions.

In 2015, while scaling the 16,050-foot Vinson Massif, the tallest peak in Antarctica and one of the Earth’s “Seven Summits,” he and his expedition were battered for days by 60-90 mph blasts, with the temperature plunging to minus 40 degrees.

Steve Fagin, seal-watching by kayak off Fishers Island (Photo by Carl Tjerandsen)

“Hey, sorry if this isn’t cold enough for you,” I called over to Todd Sunday afternoon, after he peeled off his hat in temperatures that rose to the comparatively balmy mid-40s.

Todd replied that he wasn’t complaining.

Our group also enjoyed light winds that kept the seas nice and calm. No other boats were on the water. The only downside was, on the way out, we pushed against the end of the flood tide and, by the time we headed back a few hours later, the ebb had started, meaning we had to fight the current both ways — but hey, you can’t have everything.

After a slight detour to check out an enormous seal perched on a rock formation known as Middle Clump, we steered due east along the north shore of Fishers, past Brooks Point to the next protuberance, Hungry Point, where several shiny heads bobbed in the water. A few seals barked and coughed above the mournful bellow of the horn at Latimer Reef Light Station a mile north. The aroma of fish breath permeated the air.

We stopped paddling and drifted.

Ker-splash! One bold scout ventured within 10 feet of our flotilla and dove back under with a flick of its flippers. Others approached from the rear. In minutes, we were encircled by dozens of seals — some swimming idly past, others pausing to stare.

“It’s the mother lode,” Bob whispered.

Seals are particularly adept at avoiding eye contact and prefer to sneak up behind kayakers. One favorite photographic trick is to paddle backwards; still, trying to snap a picture is like playing Wack-a-Mole.

Carl relied on patience and a telephoto lens to capture the images you see in the section.

However tempting it was to prolong our visit, after about half an hour, we steered back toward Noank.

“We should leave these guys alone,” Phil said.

Plus, the tide was running faster, the breeze had picked up, and the sun had begun its descent toward the western horizon.

“An epic outing,” I said.

By the way, you don’t have to paddle a kayak to view seals in their natural habitat. There are a few commercial vessels that offer seal-watching cruises, and Project Oceanology in Groton schedules regular weekend outings in March through April.

I think I’ll stick to a kayak, though — as long as it doesn’t dip too much below freezing and the seas stay under 3 feet.

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