Walking their dog along the beach by their Greenport home Saturday morning, Gary Mangus and his wife Mimi Meyers came across a seal on a sandbar.
That’s far from a rare occurrence, but this one was different. The size, coloring and behavior were a dead giveaway that this was not just another common harbor seal.
Their silky terrier, Molly, was equally amazed.
“She started wading right out there, which is unusual since she’s afraid of animals, including other dogs,” said Mr Mangus. “The seal didn’t move, but it did make a barky kind of sound, but it didn’t bark and the dog didn’t either. I pulled her back because she could have been his lunch.”
The Southold Town police officer who responded to their call told them it was a harp seal weighing about 200 pounds. That’s four times as much as a harbor seal, which unless gravely ill would likely have immediately scampered back into the water.
The day before, on Friday, an adult harp seal was spotted in downtown Riverhead as well, in the Peconic River not far from the Peconic Avenue bridge, the western end of the river’s saltwater section. Julika Wocial, rescue program supervisor for Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, checked it out the and said the seal displayed normal swimming and diving behavior. It didn’t appear to be sick or otherwise in distress.
As an arctic species, the two harp seals strayed far from the icy waters of Canada or Greenland where most are usually found this time of year.
They’re far from home, but not alone.
Harp seals are showing up in record numbers all along the East Coast as far south as North Carolina, and marine biologists can only guess why, said Kim Durham, biologist and rescue program director for the Riverhead Foundation.
The group started hearing of juvenile harp seal sightings about 15 years ago. “Occasionally we’d see an adult, but in bad condition,” said Ms. Durham. “This year we’ve got a lot of adult sightings. We’ve never seen numbers like this before.”
Harp seals can be recognized by their black faces. They’re name comes from the marking on the backs of adults, which resembles a harp or a saddle.
The foundation has logged reports of about 50 harp seal sightings this year, five times as many as 2010. Seals, including the more common harbor and gray species, usually begin to appear in East End waters in January. This year harp seals have been spotted as far west as Long Beach and the Rockaways.
A loss of habitat and an overabundant population seem to be the two most likely explanations, said Ms. Durham.
Harp seals spend little time on land, preferring to haul out instead on pack ice. Some marine biologists believe shrinking levels of sea ice are forcing the seals southward, said Ms. Durham.
“At this time of year harp seals get a new coat by molting,” she said. “They’d haul out on the ice and basically soak up the sun. That helps out in the process. One theory is they now don’t have as much ice to haul out on.”
Harp seals are also found in large numbers in the Arctic and according to one school of thought non-dominant males are striking out for new territories, Ms. Durham added.
“We’re seeing a lot of males,” she said. “The youngest animals tend to migrate away if they’re not the fittest.”
She doesn’t believe the animals are suffering from a lack of food.
“There’s not a heck of a lot of proof that the animals are coming down here and eating all our fish,” she said. “The animals we’re taking in are skinny.”
Some of the seals seem to be less than healthy, “but not at death’s door,” according to Ms. Durham.
Some animals, such as the one Mr. Mangus described, may seem ill but that could be misleading.
“Harp seals are more tolerant of people than harbor or gray seals,” Ms. Durham added. “That gives people the idea that they’re in far worse condition than they really are.”
The foundation has not rescued any sick harp seals on the North Fork, nor has it found any deceased animals. The group isn’t equipped to help adult harp seals, which when fully grown can stretch from five to six feet in length and weigh up to 400 pounds.
The organization’s rehabilitation area at the Atlantis Marine World Aquarium in Riverhead serve as an animal hospital for small, young animals. The foundation currently has 13 seals in its charge, most of them pups up to 18 months old weighting no more than 60 pounds. The harbor seal the foundation will release in Hampton Bays on Saturday weighs 50 pounds.
An adult harp seal wouldn’t fit in one of 17 six-foot tanks, Mr. Durham said. The foundation has a nine-foot tank, but since that’s in an area open to the public it’s not suitable rehab space, she added. All that’s left is the foundation’s 30-foot dolphin tank.
“But if we use that, we’re pretty much out of the dolphin business,” she said. “This has been a challenge all along the East Coast.”