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Seal-watching on Hempstead Bay

The Riverhead Foundation runs winter harbor seal-watching cruises

The Riverhead Foundation runs winter harbor seal-watching cruises out of Freeport into Hempstead Bay, led by a biologist Robert DiGiovanni. Here, Ellen Richman watches for seals. (Jan 7, 2012) Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

The crowd was eager. A boat full of seal-seekers was cruising along Hempstead Bay on a recent Saturday afternoon, hoping to catch a glimpse of the silvery brown animals that visit Long Island's waters this time of year.

"Seal at 9 o'clock, folks . . . and a second just came out the front," says Debbie Spangler-Martin, a naturalist with the Riverhead Foundation For Marine Research and Preservation who was narrating the trip. "You want to look for a black bowling ball bobbing in the water."

Passengers -- some with binoculars -- squinted at the water. Is that really a seal -- or just a buoy bobbing in the distance?

"I can see him!" shouts 6-year-old Eric Rogers, of Merrick. "I didn't see his body . . . but I saw his head."

Eric's father Steve, 46, was just as pleased with the excursion. "I had no idea we could go five minutes from the house and see seals."

ABOUT THE CRUISE

Now is prime time for seal-spotting on Long Island, where winter harbor and gray seals can be seen through mid-April. On this day, 140 passengers boarded a Captain Lou Fleet boat in Freeport, enjoying sunshine and unseasonably mild temperatures while watching and learning about the animal's biology and behavior, along with that of other marine life inhabiting the area.

"Winter harbor seals are what you are seeing today," Spangler-Martin explains. They're 5- to 6-feet long and weigh between 130 and 330 pounds. Three other species -- gray, hooded and harp -- also visit the area and can be up to 800 pounds. "These are massive seals," Spangler-Martin says.

The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation is a nonprofit organization that preserves and protects the marine environment through education, rehabilitation and research.

"We do these cruises because we want people to be aware that these animals are in their backyard," says executive director Robert A. DiGiovanni Jr.

WHAT TO EXPECT

The two-hour cruises run regularly from Freeport -- each is narrated by a Riverhead Foundation naturalist. You'll want to dress warmly (it gets windy on the water) and bring binoculars along with a snack. Sightings, of course, are common -- but not guaranteed.

"I wasn't certain that we would see anything, so it's been really great," says Rhiannon Stephens, of Manhattan, who was cruising with her 5-year-old daughter, Menna Stephens Roll. "My daughter is learning about the salt marshes and why they are disappearing. She is seeing seals and how they live one by one."

Jan Heinlein, of Freeport, was onboard as a Christmas gift from her children and grandchildren -- and was elated to be sharing the experience with her family. "You couldn't ask for a more perfect day and perfect weather," says Heinlein, 56. "We've seen quite a few seals today. It is nice to know that they are here and that the waters are clear."

Seal Cruises

With the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation

WHEN | WHERE 1 p.m. (12:30 p.m. boarding) Saturdays, Sundays and select weekdays through mid-April, aboard a Captain Lou Fleet boat, which departs from Woodcleft Avenue, Freeport. Boat returns at 3 p.m. Reservations required.

INFO 631-369- 9840, riverheadfoundation.org

COST $25 ($22 65 and over, $20 ages 3-12)

Seal walks

WHEN | WHERE Select Saturdays and Sundays through May, Cupsogue Beach County Park, Westhampton. Reservations required.

INFO 631-870-5770, cresli.org

ADMISSION Suggested $5 donation

WHAT A two-hour naturalist led walk to learn about, observe and photograph seals in the wild. Walks are about 1 mile (weather permitting).

WHEN | WHERE Select Saturdays and Sundays through April, Montauk Point State Park. Reservations required.

INFO 631-668- 3781, nysparks.com/parks

ADMISSION $5 ($3 younger than 18)

WHAT A 2- to 3-hour leisurely walk to an area where four species of seals can be observed. Binoculars recommended.

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