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Marine mammal experts give tips for seeing seals on Long Island

A harbor seal leaps out of the water

A harbor seal leaps out of the water near Cupsogue Beach in West Hampton Beach. Credit: A.H. Kopelman

Local seal populations are on the rise, so whether you take a guided tour or hike out on your own, there’s an excellent chance you’ll see a herd of these cute critters frolicking around Long Island’s bays and beaches.

Here are tips from marine mammal experts for finding, identifying and watching the seals from Jones Beach to Montauk.

1. THERE’S MORE TO SEE

“The populations of the seals here are on the increase,” says Arthur Kopelman, a biologist who leads seal walks for the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island. “Last winter for the first time they began to rebound from Hurricane Sandy,” he says. In March, when the local seal population peaks, “We’ve seen up to 200 at a time,” Kopelman says.

2. BUT THEY’RE JUST VISITING

Although their exact place of origin is unknown, the seals most likely swim here from coastal Maine and Canada, says Melanie Meade, a marine biologist and nature educator at the South Fork Natural History Museum & Nature Center in Bridgehampton. “They are following their food, which is mainly squid,” Meade says.

3. LOOK NEAR HAUL-OUTS

Seals generally like to spend their days resting on exposed sandbars, Meade says. Called seal haul-outs, these seal sunbathing spots are in Moriches Bay and the waters off the 1 1⁄2-mile-long Seal Haul-Out Trail at Montauk Point State Park.

4. KNOW THE VARIETIES

Harbor seals make up more than 99 percent of the population at Cupsogue, Kopelman says. They range from 4 to 6 feet long and have spotted coats and small front flippers, according to the website of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Gray seals, often seen in Montauk, are larger than harbor seals and have a longer, broader nose, Meade says. Arctic seals, which tend to be solitary, are also occasionally seen here.

5. DO NOT DISTURB

Before going on a solo seal walk, Kopelman suggests taking a guided tour to learn how to locate and behave around these protected marine mammals.

“If you don’t know what you are doing, you have a serious chance of disturbing the seals,” Kopelman says. Seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which makes it illegal to feed or harass them.

“Stay 100 feet away, and don’t do anything that disturbs their behavior,” Meade says. For a closer look, bring a spotting telescope.

GUIDED TOURS

SEAL WALKS

The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

WHEN | WHERE 1:30 p.m. Jan. 1 and 15, 10:30 a.m. Jan. 7, continues through March 12, Jones Beach State Park. Meet at the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center at West End Field #1. Reservations required.

INFO 516-780-3295

ADMISSION $4

A state parks naturalist leads a 1 1⁄2-hour walk to an area where up to four species of seals can be seen.

Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island (CRESLI)

WHEN | WHERE 8:30 a.m. Dec. 10 and 24, 9:30 a.m. Dec. 11, continues through May 7, Cupsogue Beach County Park, Westhampton Beach. Meet near the fence at the western end of the park parking lot. Online reservations required.

INFO 631-319-6003, cresli.org

ADMISSION $5 suggested donation ($3 younger than 18)

Join Artie Kopelman on a 1.2-mile round trip to see the harbor seal population in Moriches Bay.

South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center

WHEN | WHERE Dec. 11, 2 p.m. Additional dates January through March. Meet at Cupsogue Beach County Park, 906 Dune Rd., Westhampton Beach

INFO 631-537-9735, sofo.org

ADMISSION $10 ($7.50 ages 3-12) includes same-day museum admission

Nature educator Xylia Serafy takes groups out in search of harbor and gray seals, which sunbathe on a sandbar near the beach.

SEAL CRUISES

Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research & Preservation

WHEN | WHERE 12:30 p.m. Dec. 30-31 and Jan 1, continues through April 16, Captain Lou Fleet, 28A Woodcleft Ave., Freeport. Reservations suggested.

INFO 631-369-9840, riverheadfoundation.org, captloufleet.com/cruises

ADMISSION $26 ($22 ages 3-12)

Learn about seal biology and behavior with a naturalist from the Riverhead Foundation, as you cruise by local herds in a vessel with a heated cabin.

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