A Close (Seal) Encounter

Though I enjoy living in Durham, one thing that I truly miss is close proximity to the ocean. Growing up on Long Island, New York, I was spoiled by living 15 minutes away from the beach. When I visit home, I try to take advantage of it by exploring new areas and viewing wildlife- even in the cold.

Now that I am back home for winter break, I had the opportunity to go seal-watching at Cupsogue Beach Park. Since 2004, the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, Inc. (CRESLI) has been monitoring populations of seals and cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises). Programs such as these are essential for the long-term study of these species, as data can be used to better understand feeding, mating and social organization, as well as changes in population size and distribution.

A harbor seal in the water. Photo courtesy of A.H. Kopelman for CRESLI.

One of the most interesting components of this research is the photo identification of both harbor and grey seals, as well as cetaceans—namely, fin whales, sperm whales and humpback whales. Using high-resolution DSLR cameras, each individual whale can be identified in a photograph by its pattern, dorsal fin and/or other notable features. This method of research is useful in studying individual animals and determining population numbers, which is especially critical for highly endangered species such as the North Atlantic Right Whale.

Data from the past 20 years show that 25 species of cetaceans can be found in Long Island’s waters. The regular seal surveys conducted by CRESLI and other groups have determined that there are 26 sites around Long Island that seals tend to occupy—some as surprising as the waters next to John F. Kennedy International Airport. In such a highly-populated, intensely-developed region, it can be easy to forget that wildlife utilizes the area just as much people do.

On this day, I saw 51 harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) hauled out on the beach. The two most common species in the region are harbor and grey seals, though more northern-dwelling species such as harp, hooded and ringed seals have become more commonly sighted. Sightings are much more common from November to May, when the seals reside in this area until they migrate back north to New England and Canada for the summer. As of May 2018, 181 individual seals have been identified at Cupsogue Beach alone, adding up to over 18,000 seal encounters—many of which have returned every year since the start of the monitoring program.

In this age of rapid species decline and extinctions, policy and advocacy are definitely needed to alleviate this negative trend, but so is sound science. By conducting long-term monitoring, CRESLI’s ultimate goal is to better protect these animals and their environment by first understanding their biology and behavior. And by allowing ordinary people to join in on their research through seal walks, seal cruises, and whale and pelagic bird cruises, they help make conservation accessible to everyone.


Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, Inc. (CRESLI). http://cresli.org/cresli/cresli.html.