Harbor seal enthralls Inwood, indicates cleaner waters

CHRISTINA KELSO      OCTOBER 4, 2018      the uptowner      Original PUBLICATION LINK
“Sealy” – courtesy of New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

In the waters of Muscota Marsh near Inwood Hill Park, a harbor seal went looking for fish and found a following. Known to some as “Sealy” and others as “Lucille” (loose seal – get it?) the whiskered pinniped started making regular appearances in late spring, to the delight of neighborhood residents.

Still frequently spotted swimming or lounging on the shoreline’s large rocks and on a nearby pier, the animal is making waves, from neighborhood social media to coffee shop conversations.

“It’s quite extraordinary to see that wildlife here,” said Andrew O’Reilly, 33, a groundskeeper for Columbia University’s nearby Gould-Remmer Boathouse.

More than a neighborhood novelty, the seal reflects a resurgence of marine mammals in New York City waters.

Kristy Biolsi, director of the Center for the Study of Pinniped Ecology at St. Francis College, has led observational studies of New York City seals for more than a decade. Once locally extinct, seals have returned and, little by little, their numbers continue to increase, she said.

“When you think New York City and when you think wildlife, you don’t think seal, or whale,” she said. “But, there’s whales, dolphins, and they’re all connected and all making a comeback.”

Driving their return are cleaner waterways. Biolsi credits the federal 1972 Clean Water Act and subsequent laws regulating pollution with making water more habitable for fish and, in turn, the marine mammals that feed on them.

“They’re taking advantage of the food source and potentially the fact that there are not many other seals to fight for space and food,” she said.

New York seals are part of a larger cohort that follows fish migrations between Virginia and Canada. While most migrate north for the summer and fall breeding season, some choose to stay year-round.

While it’s unknown why Sealy has summered in the city, Biolsi says it’s possible that the animal has not reached sexual maturity.

“There might not be a strong motivation,” she said. “As long as there’s food and the water’s okay, why leave?”

Urban Ranger Leanna Rodriguez leads pop-up seal education at Muscota Marsh. (Christina Kelso/The Uptowner)

Paul Sieswerda, president and CEO of Gotham Whale, a nonprofit which uses citizen sightings to track city marine mammal populations, says the area the animal has adopted “sounds just about right for a seal to have a little bit of privacy, a little place to sun themselves, and then get right back in the water and chase fish.”

He encourages anyone who sees Sealy or any other marine mammal to snap a photo and report the sighting to Gotham Whale’s website.

Whatever the reason, Inwood residents seem happy to have their new neighbor stick around. Seals have hauled out in the area before, but such frequent sightings are unusual.

Resident Jorgen Kjaer, 53, was walking through the park a few weeks ago when he noticed a little crowd of people down by the water. Approaching, he was surprised to find a seal at the center of the excitement.

“He crawled up on the rocks and was just lying there,” he said. “The kids were going crazy. Everybody was taking pictures.”

For park rangers, Sealy’s presence and the enthusiasm surrounding it has created a new opportunity for educational outreach.

“People are very excited to see wildlife in such an urban area,” said Urban Ranger Leanna Rodriguez. “It reminds you we’re in a wild space. We’re a natural habitat.”

Rodriguez is leading a series of pop-up educational programs on the waterfront to educate park visitors about seals and encourage behavior that is safe and healthy for both humans and Sealy.

“Since our seal likes to pop up, we pop up too,” she said.

Programs will be timed to coincide with afternoon high tides when Sealy is most likely to make an appearance. Rodriguez is also working to learn which organization placed a yellow tag on the seal’s flipper, which could reveal its gender and relative age. The seal appears healthy, she said.

Seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which states that people should observe from at least 150 feet away and never feed them.

“They are adorable and people get very excited and rightfully so,” said Biolsi. “I still get excited every time I see them and I’ve been doing this for years. But they are wild animals and they can bite. They have big teeth. They have big claws. Just observe them and enjoy them from a respectable distance.”

As the tides come and go, some residents are still waiting for a chance to meet their celebrity neighbor.

“I’ve seen wonderful photos of him, but I’ve yet to meet him, which is really sad,” said Justine Diaz, 26, a social worker and barista at Indian Road Café just across the street from the marsh.

“I stand out there for hours and she never shows for me,” said Inwood resident and entrepreneur Amy Joy Robateau, 40. “Maybe it’s my vibe?”