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Wild New Jersey Revisited: A Taste of the Arctic at Sandy Hook

Friday, March 5th, 2021

by David Wheeler

Regular winter visitors to the Jersey Shore, this group of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) and harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus) catch some sun in the tide. Photo courtesy of Joe Reynolds.

Wild New Jersey Revisited is a monthly series of excerpts from Conserve Wildlife Foundation executive director David Wheeler’s 2011 book Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State.

Today we focus on a winter visitor from the Arctic.

Excerpt from Chapter 13

Great White Hunter

Pick a sunny but frigid day in the heart of winter. Find a remote, windswept location along the Jersey Shore. Bring a high-powered spotting scope or binoculars, extra layers of winter clothes, and a healthy supply of patience.

Voila! That might be enough to get you a sighting of a seal – or fifty – in the Garden State.

Incredibly enough, seals are becoming more and more common along the coast each winter, eating a daily ration of up to 20 pounds of flounder, other fish, shellfish, crustaceans, and mollusks. Four species visit New Jersey’s coastal waters in a given winter. Spotted most frequently are harbor seals hauling out onto exposed sandbars or dredge spoils along the coast. Gray and hooded seals from as far as the Norwegian island of Svalbard visit less often. Each has a unique look. The gray seal’s large snout earned it the nickname “horsehead seal.” The male hooded seal inflates its nose to attract female seals – and looks like a veritable Bozo the Seal.

The harp seal, on the other hand, is the equivalent of a seal supermodel. You may have seen them many times before. In the 1980s the harp seal’s puppy-eyed white pups served as the adorable public face of the anti-seal hunting movement. Far less common in estuaries than harbor seals, the harp seal usually sticks to the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans. Nonetheless, young harp seals are found regularly on New Jersey’s coast each winter.

Sandy Hook is a great place for seeing a seal in the wild. Seals often hunt at night and spend their days resting onshore – an ideal schedule for wildlife enthusiasts. That is, for those willing to walk the most windswept waterfront locations in the coldest months of the year. Joe Reynolds, of the Bayshore Regional Watershed Council, is just such an adventurer.

“When it’s low tide on a really sunny day, you have the potential to see thirty to fifty seals out basking together on Skeleton Island,” says Reynolds.

Seals can typically be found in New Jersey from December through April. Photo courtesy of Joe Reynolds.

The Rescuers

Reynolds is also one of around a hundred active volunteers with the Marine Mammal Stranding Center. These volunteers up and down the coast serve as the eyes and ears of the unique Brigantine-based center, which was started in 1978 to rescue and rehabilitate injured or stranded seals, whales, dolphins, and sea turtles. Sheila Dean, the center’s co-director, has worked for more than two decades to help such marine animals.

“We had a little seal – we named her Tak, after the harbor where she was born, Takanassee – that was stranded just after being born,” says Dean. “Her mother left the baby on the beach – there was just no way she could keep people away. We raised it, but she was just too imprinted on humans. We ended up giving her to the Indianapolis Zoo. I felt really bad, but she would not have survived out there.”

Dean wasn’t being overprotective. A dolphin in Florida, after being rehabilitated for nine months, was released into the wild. Sharks killed it immediately upon release, with everyone watching in horror. Clearly nature takes its own course.

Many of New Jersey’s stranded seals are victims of shark bites. In 2009 at least five seals were mauled by the same shark, which was caught off the Sea Girt Reef.

“Shark-bit seals are quite common, and we sometimes get a lot of them,” says Maurice Tremblay, a Marine Mammal Stranding Center volunteer. “We even had one with a bite from an orca.”

After my tour of the center, I realize I just have to see a seal in New Jersey for myself. I had seen seals off the coast of Northern Ireland and enjoyed the fussy orchestra of the famed sea lions at San Francisco’s wharfside, but seals never seemed possible in New Jersey.

I pick the right day: it is absolutely glacial, with a winter storm scheduled to hit within a few hours. My daughter and I head first to Skeleton Island, a long barrier strip on the bay side of Sandy Hook. It is low tide, and the tangy smell of saltmarsh fills the air. Many dark, long shapes pepper the distant sandbars beyond the island, and our hopes are high. A closer look through my binoculars reveals no movement. My “seals” turn out to be driftwood logs and rocks.

We watch gulls drop clams against the rocks and plummet after them, and then we head for the northern end of Sandy Hook near Fort Hancock. Looping around, I drive south along the bay’s edge, peering through the passenger window and hoping against hope for a seal. A male red-breasted merganser catches Kayla’s eye, its green head feathers tussled in the back like a case of bedhead. I pull to the right and back up for a closer look. It is then that I see a dark shape that almost immediately goes under. It does not register as a bird, so could it be…?

I turn the car around for a direct look with my binoculars, and there it is! A clear shot of a seal head, dark black with puppy dog eyes, long face, and whiskers. We watch for a few seconds as it stares back before finally going under. Between the seal and the approaching storm, Sandy Hook might as well be the Arctic.

Ten Years Gone

Seals continue to visit the Jersey Shore each winter, with sightings steadily increasing in recent years. Among the best places to see them each winter are Sandy Hook, Liberty State Park, and Cape May. Sightings typically occur through April, so if you’re interested, best to try as soon as possible!

The Marine Mammal Stranding Center continues to protect and rehabilitate marine mammals and sea turtles along New Jersey’s coastline, with over 300 volunteers. And Joe Reynolds has since founded the nonprofit Save Coastal Wildlife in 2018 to engage people with the biodiversity along the Jersey Shore.

– David Wheeler, March 2021

Read Part I of Wild New Jersey Revisited: A Predator Returns to the State’s Rugged Northwest

Visit CWF’s species spotlight on seals in New Jersey, and interact with our StoryMap on harbor seals in New Jersey.

Stay tuned for the next installment of “Wild New Jersey Revisited” – a memorable night spent out in the early spring rain with salamanders and frogs!

Don’t forget to purchase your own copy of Wild New Jersey from the CWF Store today!