Put on your hat, scarf and gloves, grab your binoculars and head to the beach. Winter is prime time to go seal watching on Long Island.
Did you know that seals swim near Long Island’s shores? Up until a couple of years ago, I certainly didn’t – at least not anywhere that I could see them.
Yes, seal watching on Long Island is something you can actually do. I first became aware of our pinniped neighbors through the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation. Foundation naturalists lead seal watch cruises from the Nautical Mile in Freeport every year from late December through April when harbor seals inhabit the island’s surrounding waters.
Despite not getting along too well with boats or the cold, I booked my spot on the boat soon after. The mere 15-minute drive from my house to the dock made it too close to resist.
I boarded the Captain Lou Fleet fishing boat both excited and skeptical, and bundled up to my eyes. It was an unusually mild February afternoon the day of our cruise, but the wind was bitter out on the water. Thankfully, the heated cabin and hot chocolate provided some relief.
As we neared our destination in Hempstead Bay, it wasn’t long before the naturalists on board began to point out harbor seals. Soon after the first one poked its head up beside the boat, a few more popped up, coaxing all the sightseers from one side of the vessel to the other. At one point we came across a group that looked as if they were having their own private beach party, feeding, playing and even jumping out of the water. By the end of the day, we spotted almost 20!
Every winter since then I have returned to Jones Beach near those same waters to look for seals and I’ve always been lucky to see a few.
Jones Beach Seal Watching
Several species inhabit Long Island’s waters, though the most common are harbor and, occasionally, grey seals. In recent years there has been a significant increase in the population of seals that come to the area, making the chances of spotting one much greater.
When seal watching on Long Island, go to areas where they are known to hang out (see below) and look for shiny black heads bobbing in and out of the water. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a few sunning themselves or “hauling out” on rocks. Do not go near them or do anything that will startle them or disrupt their natural behavior.
It’s incredible to view seals in their natural environment. Use the guide below to find the best spots for seal watching on Long Island and see how many you can count.
Where to go seal watching on Long Island
Jones Beach Seal Watching
As seen on Google Maps, there is a designated Harbor Seal Watch Spot in Jones Beach. Park in Field 10 (no fee in winter), walk down to the beach and set your sights on the water.
The Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center also offers guided walks to see the seals at Jones Beach all winter. Fees are $4 per person. Registration is required.
Reserve your place on the two-hour tour on the Captain Lou Fleet, departing from the Nautical Mile in Freeport on select dates from late December through April. Learn about local seal populations from onboard naturalists as you cruise through Hempstead Bay.
Tickets are $26; $22 children. Proceeds support the New York State Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Rescue Program. All cruises board at 12:30 p.m. and leave at 1 p.m. Heated cabin and hot beverages provided.
Montauk Seal Walks
Montauk State Park is a popular haul out spot for harbor seals. Hike on your own or go with a naturalist. On the weekends, state park naturalists lead walks to an area where up to four species of seals can be observed. The walk is approximately 3 miles long and takes two to three hours to complete. Registration is required. $4 per person.
Join a naturalist on a seal walk at Cupsogue Beach County Park for a chance to see dozens of harbor seals swimming and hauled out. Walks are about 1 mile round trip and take about an hour or two. Suggested contributions are $5; $3 for children. CRESLI also offers seal cruises in the waters of eastern Long Island. Contact the organization for information on schedules and fees.
Have you ever gone seal watching on Long Island? What’s your favorite spot? Tell us in the comments.