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Where to Go Seal Watching in New York

By Irene Plagianos | February 25, 2015 11:15am
 Seals have arrived in New York City, migrating for warmer climates
Seals in New York City
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NEW YORK CITY — While most New Yorkers are done with the drawn-out forecast of freezing weather, the seasonal temperatures are perfect for attracting blubber-insulated seals, who are flocking to NYC en masse, experts say.

That's good news for would-be seal watchers interested in trying to catch a glimpse of the many varieties of adorable water mammals who have come south for food and in search of a slightly warmer climate.

From the coast of Staten Island to Sunset Park, Brooklyn to The Bronx's Pelham Bay Park, there are plenty of places to check out cute seals that love to bask in the sun on rocks.

But regardless of where you go, try to pick a sunny day to spot the seals. Also be mindful of keeping a distance — at least 150 feet, experts said — so as not to disturb them. It's best to bring some binoculars for a closer peek.

Also, bone up on your seal knowledge: Harbor seals are by far the most common species in NYC's waters. Less common are the gray seals (often darker in color and with nostrils set much farther apart) and harp seals (one is seen sunning itself at Rockaway Beach in the video above) that typically travel from deeper in the Arctic waters.

Here's where to spot a seal this winter, before they swim back north around the end of March:

Best Bet: Staten Island's Coast Overlooking New York Harbor

Seals, particularly harbor seals, are big fans of New York Harbor, said New York City Audubon Society spokesman Tod Winston.

He's counted more than 30 seals simultaneously in the waters off the coast of Staten Island this winter, and said they've been swimming down in larger numbers because New York Harbor has become cleaner in recent years.

Swinburne Island and Hoffman Island, two manmade, long-abandoned pieces of land near Staten Island “are rocky, plenty of space for them to lie out in the sun, and there aren’t any people there," Winston said. “So it makes sense that they’d haul out there.”

The closest you can get to those islands on land is South and Midland Beaches in Staten Island, which are only about a mile away. To get there, take the Staten Island Ferry, then transfer to the S81 or S85 bus.

If you want a closer look and don't mind spending some cash, the NYC Audubon Society offers weekend eco cruises to spot the seals and other animals that migrate south in the winter to the New York Harbor. You may even catch a glimpse of the rare snowy owl on the cruise, Winston said.

Cruises cost $35 for adults and $25 for children ages 12 and under. The cruises run through March 8.

Feeling Lucky: Sunset Park, Brooklyn and Pelham Bay Park, Bronx

Other harbor seals, but not in huge packs, have recently been spotted off Sunset Park's Bush Terminal Park. Take the R train to 45th Street, then walk a few blocks to the waterfront park.

You may see also a larger group of seals sunning themselves off the coast of Pelham Bay Park in The Bronx. Take the 6 train to the Pelham Bay Park stop.

Farther Afield: Take a Trip to Long Island

Riverhead Foundation offers boat tours in Hempstead Bay every weekend through April to catch glimpses of the seals out on bay rocks. Take the Long Island Rail Road to Freeport to catch the two-hour boat ride. Tickets are $26 for adults, $22 for seniors and $22 for children ages 12 and under. Check out Riverhead Foundation's website for more information.

You can also walk along Jones Beach to see seals off the shore. To get there, take the LIRR to the Freeport stop, then take the N88 bus to the beach, or a cab.

Heading out to Montauk Point State Park will also give you a hike with a view of seals on rocks off the coast. You can walk on your own, or, for the next two weekends, take a 3-mile seal walk led by a state park naturalist. The walk is $4 for adults, and $3 for those under 18 years old. You can take the LIRR to the Montauk stop, then catch a cab for a quick ride into the park.