Most people don’t spend much time thinking about local wildlife until a deer or goose crosses their path, triggering feelings of surprise, awe, fear or wonder — and a sudden acknowledgement of the unknown.
Such was the case when a 3-month-old male gray seal pup was spotted in the Flanders traffic circle where it clearly didn’t belong on a quiet Sunday morning, April 3. The seal was taken for evaluation, found to be healthy, and released by the Riverhead-based nonprofit New York Marine Rescue Center (NYMRC) into the ocean the following Friday — a happy ending, by all accounts. But the incident also served as a reminder that sea life also regularly makes local appearances.
“Gray seals are very inquisitive, and they get into trouble at this age,” says NYMRC Rescue Program Director Maxine Montello, who noted that pups leave their mothers at 3–4 weeks old, so it is normal for them to be on their own.
While it is not unusual for seals to leave the water, it was a surprise to find one on such a busy road. Gray seals are one of five species of seals that frequent Long Island waters from Montauk to Fire Island. Harbor and harp seals are often commonly sighted. All seals are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Because even well-meaning human interference can cause much harm, the MMPA requires humans to maintain a 150-foot distance from the seals.
NYMRC monitors the health of reported animals and will rescue and relocate animals when warranted.
“Our goal is for all animals to be released,” says NYMRC Director Danielle Perillo.
The NYMRC gets lots of calls of seals, especially from April to May. Seals often rest on rocks and beaches near the shore. Most seals are simply resting, but NYMRC encourages people to call with sightings so they can monitor the seals.
“It’s really important to share our beaches,” says Montello.
The most frequent dangers to sea life are marine pollution, including oil, gasoline and plastic in the water; entanglement in fishing gear; vessel strikes, especially propeller hits; and harassment — illegal take and feeding, or anything that causes altering the animal’s behavior.
“These are negative things we’re doing,” says Montello, adding that this is why NYMRC is focused on educating the public about these preventable behaviors.
Boaters are encouraged to go slowly in shallow water and to have a spotter looking for wildlife so that it can be avoided. People are reminded to not approach or feed wildlife. Montello reports that well-meaning people have pulled seals into the water, taken them home or fed them. Any overlap with the animals puts them at risk for not being able to survive in the wild.
Climate change is creating enormous challenges for sea life. NYMRC reports that they used to see more hooded and ringed seals than they do now. These “ice seals” used to migrate down from northern Maine and Canada and frequent Long Island waters in late December and early January. As local winters have gotten milder, the seals no longer come this far south.
One species of ice seal that still comes to our waters is the harp seal. They normally eat snow and ice for hydration, but on our beaches they may ingest sand and rocks instead, which can cause serious damage to their stomachs. If harp seals have sand around their mouths, they are taken to NYMRC. Sometimes surgery is required, but even so, many harp seals die after rescue. A difficult decision for any rescue organization is to balance the cost of resources with the chance of success in giving animals a second chance.
NYMRC has also seen an increase in sea turtle strandings due to climate change. Long Island is home to four species of sea turtles in the summer. The turtles forage in bays, the Long Island Sound, and the Atlantic Ocean. Green, loggerhead, leatherback and the critically endangered Kemp’s Ridley turtles all rely on Long Island waters for survival.
Seals and turtles face similar human-caused dangers, vessel injuries, fishing gear entanglement and malnutrition — all of which are preventable. But the biggest danger for turtles is cold stunning — a situation that has become much more common with changes to our weather systems.
“Because of climate changes, turtles miss the cues to go back south,” Montello says.
Warm summer temperatures now last well into October, when turtles normally migrate south. Cold temperatures come on more suddenly than they used to. Turtles can’t regulate their internal temperatures, so sudden changes in temperature are life-threatening. At water temperatures below 55 degrees, turtles’ heart rates plummet and they become immobile, washing up on shore and appearing dead. If rescued in time, the turtles can be slowly warmed over 4–5 days and released. Satellite tags indicate that they don’t stun again.
“Twenty years ago, we saw less than 10 a year,” Montello says. “Now, we rescue 40–50 a year, from November to January.”
At least half of the rescued turtles are Kemp’s Ridleys. After hatching in Mexico and Texas, the juveniles follow the Gulf of Mexico to Long Island waters. The turtles aren’t able to reproduce until they are about 20 years old, so helping the young turtles is important for saving the population.
“Turtles have a lot of obstacles,” says Montello, “from being a little hatchling and racing to the water, hiding from predators as small turtles, then surviving the journey north.”
She is hopeful that their territory may even be expanding as warm temperatures push them north. A Kemp’s Ridley nested on Long Island in 2018.
“Turtles have been around for many moons, and they are used to adapting,” she says, adding that there is still reason to be concerned. “Our little piece here is only part of the puzzle for the species,”
Any harm we can avoid increases their chance of survival.
Sightings of stranded seals or sea turtles can be called in to NYMRC’s 24-hour hotline at 631-369-9829.