Nature

Seals of Approval

Checking out the local seal population with Save the Bay

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It’s the middle of winter. I am a hardcore outdoor junkie and I need to get my fix. I also need to see some wildlife. What’s a girl to do? Drive my butt down to Newport and hop on Save the Bay’s Seal Watching Boat. I’ve got my layers on - wool blend socks, fleece jacket and vest, fleece headband, gloves and windproof jacket and am ready to brave the shallow waters of Narragansett Bay to enjoy our winter visitors.

These visitors are seals: Harbor, Hooded and Harp. They migrate from Canada and Maine, over 400 miles, and stay in our Bay until April. North America’s most common seal, the Grey Seal, is found year round in our waters. On an average tour, you can see from 40-60 seals, sometimes even more. These seals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, enacted in 1972, so we observe them from a distance. Seals, and other marine mammals, need protection for a variety of reasons. For seals, many were hunted for their supposed role in fish stock depletion. However, there are a plethora of real reasons fish stocks declined, mainly involving overfishing and the mismanagement of the fishery as a whole.

Before I even step foot onto the biodiesel fueled 45-foot vessel, the M/V Alletta Morris, I meet Captain Eric Pfirrmann. He is the fleet captain and has been working on boats for the greater part of 30 years, the majority of that time spent on sailboats and day sail yachts. The man knows his way on the water. In May 2001, he was given an opportunity to give back to the community and joined Save the bay. “I love introducing people to the bay. I get to be on it year-round and I get to see it in ways no one else has, especially when it snows it muffles all other sounds. It’s really cool,” Eric says. “Based on informal surveys, we see a relatively stable population of around 300-500 seals in Narragansett Bay. Rose Island is one of the hot spots of seal activity. Rome Point (in North Kingstown) is the better place to see them. But nowadays, the seals are just using more of the bay than they ever used to. The best educated guess is that they are returning to their historic range.”

I am thankful for that. Many folks have the idea that in order to see charismatic megafauna or uber cute and awesome wildlife, you have to leave Rhode Island, that for some reason, Rhode Island is without natural wonders. We have seals in our bay – I’ve seen them. In fact, I saw many on this wintry, wonderful, calm day at sea. However, my thoughts weren’t on the seals alone, but rather what it means to us that we have them. We are lucky that we have people in this state, yes even this country, who care enough about the natural world around us to do something about it. Because of these people I can go on a boat in the middle of winter and see seals popping their heads out of the water in and around the Newport Bridge. How many people drive over this bridge on a daily, weekly or monthly basis and have no idea of what is going on in the waters beneath. Truth be told, many are probably just happy to make it over the bridge without having to look down or imagine that there is anything below them.

From the eelgrass beds that serve as nurseries for our local fish to the seals that eat some of them, Narragansett Bay is an integral part of the Rhode Island lifestyle. We may have much more work to do, from restorative bay efforts to stormwater maintenance, but I feel that seeing these seals swimming in the bay is a step in the right direction. It’s a symbol of the recovery that continues to happen.