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Brrrrr! Nature lovers brave bitter cold to glimpse seals

Seal watchers stand on the shore of Sloop

Seal watchers stand on the shore of Sloop Channel hoping to spot the marine mammals during the seal walk held by the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center at Jones Beach on the West Field, Jan. 1, 2015. Photo Credit: David L. Pokress

Freezing temperatures and biting winds didn't keep about two dozen people from braving Jones Beach State Park Saturday. They were looking for seals, binoculars around their necks.

Bundled in winter coats and wrapped in scarves, they trekked across snow-frosted sand, scanning choppy bayside waters for the whiskered visitors.

"Look for bottling," said Patrick Kaminski, an environmental educator for state parks who led the walk. "Bottling" refers to how seals float on the water in a state of rest.

"A healthy seal looks like a hot dog," he noted.

The park offers free seal walks on select Saturdays and Sundays from the beginning of January into March. Saturday's walk was fully booked with 50 registrations, but only 22 of the nature lovers actually braved the 23-degree weather.

While there's no guarantee of seal sightings, the marine mammals are frequently seen in the area, Kaminski said. Seals migrate south when waters here get cold enough for their liking, starting in fall, and return north in the spring.

"As long as they keep finding food, they keep migrating," he said.

After about 10 minutes of walking, someone yelled "I see one!" and binoculars rose in unison.

Reflecting sunlight flashed off the wet heads of gray and harbor seals about 50 yards away.

"Oh, there's one right there!" another person shouted.

Kaminski said the seals were "obviously curious."

"They're just coming out of the water and looking at us," he said. "We've had them follow us down the beach."

The bayside of the barrier island provides protection from predators and plenty to eat, the guide said. "There are a lot of fish; otherwise there's no way they would be here."

One of the participants, Nancy Russell of Patchogue, said she braved the nature walk to avoid being "cooped up with cabin fever."

Russell, 46, a physician's assistant, was joined by her carpenter husband, David, also 46, and their daughter, Emma, 8. The seal watch was Emma's idea.

"It's really amazing to see the seals," she said, obviously delighted.

But Thomas Shoesmith, 72, a retired computer programmer from Manhattan, barely concealed his disappointment when he said he's used to seeing more seals in Cape Cod.

"We saw maybe just a dozen seals, just bottling and a few jumps," he said.

Bundled in a red-hooded coat, Shoesmith said he didn't know the walks continued into March when his wife suggested the outing.

"I might have said, 'Let's go when there's not a cold snap,' " he said.

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