Tag Archives: seals

Spring watch

A few of us went up to a gospel concert in Norton yesterday, and as we were walking back to our cars after the concert, we could hear the spring peepers singing away in the swamp next to the parking lot. We all agreed that the spring peepers haven’t yet started singing down along the coast, presumably because it’s cooler next to the ocean.

Most of the waterfowl have left the harbor, but I did see six pairs of Buffleheads this afternoon. I suspect these are not birds that wintered over here, but rather birds that are migrating north and just happened to stop here for a day; perhaps they got stranded due to the strong north winds that were blowing the past two days.

Standing at the end of State Pier today, I saw two Harbor Seals surface quite close to the pier. They stayed quite close to one another, and at one point they twined their necks together, then slipped under water together. I’ve never seen seals behave in quite this way. I don’t know anything about the mating behavior of Harbor Seals (the only reference work I have on mammals covers land mammals, including order Sirenia but leaving out pinnipeds), but I wonder if what I saw was mating behavior.


Carol and I got out for our daily walk a little late today, so we only had time to walk down along the waterfront. Of course we walked out to the end of State Pier to see if we could see any seals.

“Look, there’s one,” said Carol when we were about halfway out the pier.

I didn’t see it. “Where?” I said, and then, “Oh, I see it.”

“No, not that one, there’s another one,” said Carol. There were two seal heads bobbing in the water.

We got out to the end of the pier. “Look, there’s one really close,” I said, pointing down. At about the same time, Carol spotted yet another one. There were more than ten seals swimming around the end of the pier. Three of them were very close.

“You can hear them breathing,” I said.

“Look, there’s a little one,” said Carol. “They’re gamboling, that’s the only word for it.”

One of them looked up at us with its big dark eyes. When it exhaled, it lowered its nose to the surface of the water so that it blew a cloud of water droplets out in front.

We stayed and watched the seals for a good ten minutes, and then it got too cold to stand there any longer. We walked home feeling very satisfied.


A couple of days ago, Carol and I were walking down along the waterfront. Carol headed off towards the south side of State Pier. “Let’s go up here,” I said pointing to the north side of the pier, where the Martha’s Vineyard ferry docks. “I haven’t seen any seals yet this winter. Maybe we can see seals from up there.”

Carol turned, and started walking in that direction. She has already seen seals several times this winter.

It sounded questionable even as I said it. “Or we don’t have to go up there. I mean, we almost never see any seals up there.”

But Carol, being a good sport, was already heading up to where the ferry was docked. We got to the end of the pier, and looked out towards Fairhaven between the ferry on one side and the fishing boats on the other side. “Look,” I said, “It’s a seal!”

“Where?” said Carol. “Oh, I see it!”

The seal played on the surface of the water for a minute or so, and then slipped under the water and disappeared. We kept walking. It was a gray, raw, gloomy day. Inside, I was happily repeating to myself: I saw a seal! I saw a seal!

Spring watch

When I came down and looked at my car this morning, it was covered with a faint yellow haze of pollen.

The Herring Gulls that live on our rooftop are noisily amorous most of the day. I stuck my head up out of the skylight once and surprised them in the act. I was embarrassed, they were just pissed off.

One of the realities of living in a sea-side city is that when you walk down the streets on a damp spring day like today, every building seems to exude a faint moldy smell.

The sea ducks and loons have mostly headed north to breed. The seals have swum off to wherever it is that they breed. Now when I stand on the end of State Pier and look out, the surface of the harbor is empty, except for a few gulls.

I came around a corner and looked up at a tree covered in white blossoms. Right in the middle of the city, surrounded by drab stone buildings. It took my breath away.

Harbor seals

Sunday night’s storm left enough snow to make walking difficult on our habitual routes, so this afternoon I walked along the piers nearest our apartment. I walked out State Pier, past the crane belonging to the Cuttyhunk Ferry Company, dodged a pickup truck driving past the wire and rigging warehouse of New Bedford Ship Supply, watched the Martha’s Vineyard ferry head out of the harbor, dodged another pickup truck belonging to the state environmental police, and went down to the end of the pier to take a look at the harbor in the waning light of a cloudy evening.

When I got to the end of State Pier, I was following a Red-breasted Merganser quite close to the pier when I swuddenly found myself looking into the face of a Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina) down in the water less than fifty feet away. It looked up at me, and I looked down at it. Another seal head popped up out of the water next to the first; two more seals rolled up out of the water farther out. The first seal dove under the water, and resurfaced again at a safer distance from the pier; I could hear the second seal breathing, a sort of huff–ffff sound as it exhaled sharply and then inhaled; then it dove under the surface and disappeared.

It is really remarkable to come upon such a large mammal in the middle of an urban environment. And seals are large, typically some five feet long and weighing over 250 pounds — in other words, about the size of a small American Black Bear (Ursus americanus). If I came across a Black Bear while I was walking around downtown New Bedford, I’d doubtless feel a tingling of fear and a little bit of awe; because seals stick to the water, I don’t feel fear when I see them, but the sense of awe is definitely there. I don’t feel that same awe when I look at a merganser or a gull — they’re too different, and I don’t feel much of anything when I look in their faces — but a seal has a real and recognizable face, and it’s pretty much the same size as I am.

I stood watching the seals for quite a while. At one point, I counted seven seals with their heads above the surface of the water, or just having gone under the surface moments before. I stood stock still, and after a while they began to ignore me, and they came in closer to the pier. I listened to a couple more of them breathing, huff-ffff. At last a deepwater lobster boat came close by going one way, and a small tugboat passed close by going the other way, and the seals moved further away from the pier. The light was beginning to fade, so I headed home.

On giving up

Ferry Beach, Saco, Maine

It stopped raining late this morning, and by early evening the sky was almost entirely clear. With clear skies and a light wind, the conditions on Saco Bay were the best they’ve been all week. I decided to try to paddle to Eagle Island, about a mile off shore.

By six o’clock, I was pushing the canoe into the light surf. I waded out up to my thighs, jumped in the canoe, and started paddling. There were a few large cloud masses off to the southeast which might become thunderheads, but they were well to the south and moving away from me. I felt a light offshore wind on my back, just enough to ruffle the surface of the water. I figured the offshore wind would probably ease off towards sunset, so conditions looked good all around. I started paddling for the island.

When I was about halfway there, I saw a Common Loon off the port bow. I fumbled with binoculars — an old pair with broken eye cups, which would be no great loss if they got soaked — and as I fumbled, I realized that the bow of the canoe was slewing to port just as a particularly big swell came at me. I let the binoculars drop on their cord, grabbed the paddle, and brought the bow into the wave. It was suddenly clear that I couldn’t stop paddling, for if the canoe drifted broadside to the waves, the waves had gotten big enough that it would be easy to go over.

I kept paddling, and the swells kept getting larger. They were getting big enough that I began to worry how I would turn the canoe around. At first, I hoped that if I got on the landward side of Eagle Island, I’d be sheltered from the waves and it would be easy to turn around. But the farther out into the bay I got, the bigger the swells got. When I rode up and over one particularly big swell — about two feet high, and steeper than before — I gave up on Eagle Island, and looked for an opportunity to turn the canoe. Several good sized waves, then a short interval with small waves — I turned the canoe as fast as possible, and began paddling for shore.

But I wasn’t ready to go back yet. Once I got back to where the swells diminished in size, I decided to paddle over to the mile-long jetty that protects the channel of the Saco River. Sometimes Harbor Seals swim along the jetty — seeing a seal would be a nice consolation prize. The offshore breeze began to stiffen. I got near the jetty, reached for the binoculars to look at some Least Terns flying overhead — the wind blew me right towards the jetty. I grabbed the paddle and dug into the water to pull myself away the sharp rocks of the jetty.

That was enough. I paddled for home. It was tough going. With only one person in the canoe, the bow rode high, and it was hard work to keep it pointed just off the wind. I had to push myself harder than I liked. I rode a wave up onto the sand, jumped out, and grabbed the canoe to pull it out of the water. Muscles from my thighs up through my shoulders were quivering from the hard paddling — I just couldn’t lift the canoe right then, so I dragged it up the beach out of reach of the waves. A few more scratches on the bottom of the canoe wouldn’t hurt.

Eventually I carried the canoe up off the beach. Marty, the fellow who’s leading a sea-kayaking workshop here this week, saw me. “How’d it go?” he said.

“Well, I got two thirds of the way to Eagle Island,” I said. “But when the swells got higher than the gunwales of the canoe, it was time to turn back.”

He just laughed, and continued to tie his sea kayak on the roof of his car. His kayak would have ridden those swells with ease, of course. If I had had another experienced person in the canoe with me, I might have tried for the island, and paddling along the jetty wouldn’t have been a problem. But it was just me, in a too-small open canoe, with waves that got too big, and wind that got too stiff — so I gave up.


Today, for the first time this year, I saw ice floating in the harbor. Even though today the temperature almost got above freezing, you can finally see the effects of the cold snap of the past week. There was a shelf of ice in a sheltered area on the Fairhaven side of the harbor. The wind broke off small pieces of it. Three gulls sat on one such piece, drifting along towards Pope’s Island, surveying the world as the piece of ice spun slowly around. On the other side of Pope’s Island, I watched two Harbor Seals playing in the deep water of the main shipping channel. With the cold weather, the seals have moved back into the harbor again. One stuck its head and neck up out of the water; through the binoculars I could see its dark eyes and its whiskers dripping water.

Eagle Island

The weather hadn’t cooperated all week: fog, wind, rain storm. Some of us had hoped to paddle out to Eagle Island, but the weather had made it impossible.

Tonight at dinner, I realized that finally the weather was perfect: calm, no big swells coming into Saco Bay from the Atlantic, no chance of fog. I asked around, and Rebecca, who is from Arizona, said she’d be willing to paddle out with me. Just as we were about to carry the canoe down to the beach, Jon came walking along. He’s been waiting for the weather to break all week.

“We’re going out on the bay,” I said to him. He looked at his wife. “Go,” she said, “if you don’t, you’ll be miserable.” He ran and grabbed his kayak, and walked down with us.

We walked way down the beach to meet the low tide. We waded out, floating the canoe until the water was up over our ankles, then jumped in and started paddling.

About halfway out, a big fish jumped completely out of the water, and fell back in with a splash. It must have been four to six feet long. As we paddled along, Jon laughed and said, “I needed this.”

The water started getting darker. The sand ended, and the bottom dropped away to deep rocks. We passed a few lobster buoys. The island was getting closer: dark jagged rocks, long points or spurs exposed by the low tide, little specks of birds perched here and there, the highest part of the island covered with green (nettles and grasses) above the reach of the highest tides.

We got close enough to see rafts of eider swimming and diving around the island. They flew away when we got too close. Jon saw a seal slip into the water from off one of the rocky points.

Great Black-backed Gulls seemed to control most of the island, with a few Herring Gulls and Double-crested Cormorants. We could hear the keening cries of the baby gulls, saying, Feed us.

We slipped around one of the points of the island, out from the lee side. Low swells from the Atlantic slowly raised and lowered our boats. It’s a lonely, rugged little island.

The sun was getting low. We didn’t have time to go all the way around the island, so we turned around. “What a magical place,” I said.

On the way back, a Common Tern dove down close to our boats, pulled back four feet above the water, hovered for thirty seconds, and flew low over our heads. “Wow,” said Jon. “Amazing. Imagine being able to see that.”

The setting sun was off our starboard bow. Further to the right, thunderheads were building up over Casco Bay, the next bay to the north. We talked about other outdoor trips we had gone on, until at last we rode some waves in to the beach.

Rebecca and I put the canoe on my car, and Jon dumped the water out of his kayak. We looked at each other. “That was great.”

City critters

Went to park my car in the Elm St. garage at about ten last night, and wound up getting into a long conversation with the evening parking lot attendant about what mammals might live in the downtown neighborhood. He’s in the parking garage five evenings a week until eleven at night, and from his perch in the entrance booth he regularly sees skunks and possums. We have both seen gray squirrels, of course. And he said there’s a feral cat that lives nearby, appropriately named “Downtown” — a woman who lives nearby feeds “Downtown” every night just across Elm St. on North Second St.

We talked about whether coyotes have made it to the downtown neighborhood yet. He has talked to several people who claim to have seen coyotes in other parts of New Bedford. We agreed that one of the sure signs of a coyote living in the neighborhood is a distinct drop in the cat population. I argued that the presence of “Downtown” the cat indicated that there are no coyotes nearby, but he argued that “Downtown” is tough enough to lick most coyotes.

What other mammals in this center-city neighborhood? Well, I’ve seen harbor seals swim right up to the downtown waterfront. He saw a cottontail rabbit in the garage once. There are doubtless rats and mice. I’ve seen a big brown bat in the church. But shouldn’t there also be raccoons? — can we confirm the presence of coyotes downtown? — any other mammals? We decided this topic calls for more investigation. He’s going to talk to the people who come into the garage and pump them for information; I’m going to start watching for road kill along Route 18 to see what turns up.