At Jones Beach, hikers search for seals

From left, New York State parks naturalist Patrick

From left, New York State parks naturalist Patrick Kaminski, Bob Sneddon and his wife Peggiann Nuccio, of Port Washington, and Elizabeth Combs, 9, of Hauppauge, peer out into the water as they search for seals while attending a seal hike at the west end beaches of Jones Beach. (Jan. 1, 2013) (Credit: Steve Pfost)

The temperature was 35 Tuesday afternoon, the sky overcast and a brisk wind completed the formula for a raw winter day. But for 28 Long Islanders it was perfect weather for a New Year's Day seal walk at Jones Beach.

State parks educator Patrick Kaminski offered a briefing at the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center before leading the group to Jones Inlet. There he hoped to show them examples of the three species of seals usually found in the colder months.

The nature center staff has conducted $4-per-person winter seal walks beginning New Year's Day and ending in March for at least five years. The Jones Beach hike this year was one of three on Long Island and 18 around the state sponsored by the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

It was part of the second annual First Day Hikes initiative taking place in all 50 states.

Katrina Bowles of Elmont came with sister Victoria Bowles-Ward and nephews Brian, 8, and Matthew, 5. She had never done a New Year's Day hike, and "it sounded like a good idea. I love seals, and I don't have a problem with the weather."

Jerry and Anita Combs of Islandia brought daughter Elizabeth, 9, who likes seals and brought a stuffed animal version named Sealy. "We like to do something unique on New Year's Day," he said. "We've done other nature things on New Year's Day."

At Jones Beach, Kaminski said in his briefing, "gray seals and harbor seals are the most common, and occasionally you'll see a harp seal." Hooded seals are very rare.

"They come down from the Arctic Circle when the water gets colder down here," the educator explained. "There are no predators here, like killer whales or polar bears in the Arctic Circle. There's also lots of food like herring and cod that the seals really like."

He said in his five years at the park he has seen an increase in the seal population.

When the group emerged from the dunes onto the beach, Kaminski said, "Keep your eyes peeled, guys."

But for the first half-hour, all they saw were seagulls, cormorants and one loon.

Then a brown head popped up about 50 yards off the beach and swiveled around. "There you go!" Kaminski exclaimed as fingers pointed and binoculars focused on a harbor seal that surfaced briefly on and off for several minutes.

"It's pretty cool," Brian Bowles-Ward said of the first seal he had seen in the wild.

Jerry Combs said he was satisfied seeing even one seal. "We had a nice time, even if we hadn't seen any seals," he said.

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