Over a century ago, the New York Harbor was home to hundreds of harbor seals. Although the doe-eyed true seals may have looked cute and cuddly wrapped in their coats of silvery fur, fishermen in the days of yore thought of them as a nuisance as they competed for the same fish. Perceived as a threat to fisheries, the seals were caught and killed by the fishermen—their noses cut off as proof of a deed done well for which the fishermen received a reward.
With such questionable reputations, the harbor seals were soon extirpated from the local waters surrounding New York.
More than a hundred years passed, and the Hudson River and Atlantic Ocean estuary was cleaned up—enough to support the comeback of the harbor seal.
In spring of 2006, kayakers and recreational boaters who frequent the waters around the Verrazano Bridge, took note of what appeared to be marine mammals that had not been there before. Were there harbor seals, again in this urban estuary? The boaters notified the Kingsborough Community College for Maritime Studies and the New York Aquarium, who teamed up to investigate, and thus, began the first annual harbor seal survey.
The harbor seals had been seen splashing at the rocky edges of Swinburne and Hoffman Islands that lie to the east of the Verrazano Bridge. These man-made islands were created in the 1870s to quarantine immigrants thought to have infectious diseases. Twenty years later, masses began to use Ellis Island for immigration and were no longer held for their illnesses on the tiny isles. Time passed, and then parrots, not people, were quarantined on Hoffman Island. The islands were also used as a base for military training in the years that followed.
By the middle of the 1900s, the islands were left to nature and laws that protected them. Today, their abandoned buildings serve as sanctuaries for birds and other wildlife, like the harbor seals, that seem to have successfully found their way back.
Proof of a comeback is in the numbers. In 2006, ten harbor seals were counted, then nine and eight seals in the following two years. 2009 proved to be the best yet, with a survey doubling any other year. 20 harbor seals were counting us as we were counting them on the March 18, 2009 survey!
The harbor seals are in action—and in New York!
Paul Sieswerda with author Megan Maher. Photos by Julie Larsen Maher
New York Aquarium Curator Paul Sieswerda says that the harbor seals are back after such a long break because the water is much cleaner, and there are more fish in it. He also says the seals are no longer afraid to be in the urban waters surrounding New York because they are protected by law and do not have to face the same fate as their relatives so many years ago.
It seems the harbor seals have also brought ecotourism to the New York harbor. People want to protect what they know and see, and after an hour in a boat along the Coney Island coast, little shiny grey heads can be seen popping up like little buoys around Swinburne and Hoffman Islands. Tour operators are looking into ways to allow more public to enjoy the spectacle. The harbor is full of tugboats and cruise ships, and hopefully, hundreds of harbor seals will call it home again, too.