High season to see harbor seal activity
One of my favorite winter activities is going on a Save The Bay seal-watching excursion. I put on lots of layers, warm socks, boots, a hat and mittens. Then I grab my binoculars and walk down to Bowen’s Ferry Landing. At the top of the wharf, I am greeted by my friend, Captain Eric Pfirrmann, who started organizing these seal tours 21 years ago.
After he checked me in, I walked down the metal platform to the Alletta Morris, a sturdy gray aluminum vessel that will take us through the harbour, around Goat Island and up to Citing Rock, where we hope to see harbor seals basking in the sun.
When everyone is on board, the captain gives his safety speech, life jackets are distributed to those under 13 and binoculars are distributed to everyone. Then, three honks, let’s go!
While one would call a sailor, I like to be out of my mind on Narragansett Bay any time of the year. The breeze, the smell of salt water and the beautiful views that surround the bay make every trip special. That day, as we passed through the harbor, red mergansers in their punk hairstyles were diving off Goat Island, and a great cormorant perched on a channel beacon with its wings outstretched.
As we rounded the end of Goat Island in the bay, we could see Fort Adams to the south and the Rose Island Lighthouse to the northwest. Just off the island of the lighthouse, framed by the majestic Pell Bridge, a group of rocks emerges at low tide. Called Citing Rock, it is our destination for seeking out Rhode Island’s official state mammal, the harbor seal.
As the Save The Bay educator explains to the crowd, harbor seals are the most common species of marine mammal found in Narragansett Bay. Although gray seals inhabit the coasts of Block Island and Cape Cod, they are rare in our waters. Hooded harp seals and juveniles are also seen occasionally in the state, but these are really “ice seals” that breed much farther north in the polar regions.
Harbor seals breed along the coast of Maine and the eastern Maritimes of Canada, but in late fall they follow the herring south for the winter. February through March is peak time to see them off our shores, which you can do from shore at places like Brenton Point State Park, Rome Point in North Kingstown, and Prudence. Island. However, to really see the seals up close, it’s best to be on a boat.
As the captain directs the Alletta Morris towards the deck, someone shouts “seal the port side”, and there is a glowing dark head bobbing up and down in the water. This harbor seal’s pup face, with its big eyes and whiskers, watches us on the boat as it dances. This position, floating up and down in the water, is called bottling.
As the boat approaches the bridge, the captain swings it around so we can approach the rocks from the north and see the well-lit seals to starboard. He takes care to keep the boat at least 50 meters from the rocks, as required by law, which is also far enough away that the seals are not startled.
When the tide is low and the rocks are exposed, the seals pull themselves up to rest. Watching a seal come out is quite entertaining. Since they can’t really use their short fins or tail to help, it’s mostly a bustle and belly flop strategy. Once they are in place, they lie on their side and form the banana position with their head and tail up. While people would consider this a yoga move, it seems to be the most comfortable pose if you’re a seal.
There were already a dozen seals on the rocks as we approached, and a few other traffic jams nearby. When wet they look very dark, but when dry you can see that their fur is actually different shades of gray with spots. Their thick fur and greasy fat keep them warm in freezing water.
Later, when the tide rises, covering the rocks with water, the seals slip in to hunt for food. While they like herring, says Pfirrmann. “They are opportunistic, feeding on anything that swims, slides or crawls.
“The best sighting I had early in the season was a seal trying to wrestle a 10-pound bluefish,” he says.
Harbor seals can stay underwater hunting for up to 30 minutes, but usually it’s more like five minutes per dive.
Knowing that great white sharks have become more common off Cape Cod due to increasing gray seal populations, I asked Pfirrmann about the predators that hunt the seals. “Humans, sharks, killer whales and polar bears are the main predators of seals,” he said. “Here in this area, they are often scared away by kayaks, which, being low in the water and very quiet, are seen as potential predators.”
Historically, in addition to Indigenous peoples hunting seals for food, seals were also hunted for their fur and by fishermen who thought they were competitors for commercial fish stocks. They have been hunted to such an extent that their population, like whales, has plummeted. In 1972, the federal government passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, making it illegal to hunt or stalk any marine mammal. Harassment is determined as any activity that affects their behavior, so approaching a seal in a kayak, causing them to leave their resting place for the safety of the water, is not an option.
The population was so low 35 years ago that no harbor seals wintered in Narragansett Bay. Now, according to data collected during each seal tour and by an annual count organized by Save the Bay in cooperation with the EPA and the Narragansett Bay Estuarine Research Reserve, the population has increased significantly and appears to be stable.
The female seals that winter in our waters are already pregnant and will leave at the beginning of April to head for the isolated beaches of the northern islands to have their young. A single pup is born to a mother seal each year, and she nurses it for four to six weeks before it is alone. At this time, the male seals have returned to the area, established their territories, and mating begins. The gestation period for seals is nine months, so after mating, the implantation of the fertilized egg is actually delayed for a month to maintain the cycle on a yearly basis.
If you go out in March, you may see the males become much more active, swimming like porpoises or fighting. All this is in preparation to establish territories in the north and attract a companion.
Every time you go, however, it’s an adventure to be cherished. As Pfirrmann says, “It is a pleasure and a privilege to share our bay with these wonderful creatures.”
Note: If you find a marine mammal of any kind washed up or dead on a beach, do not approach it, call Marine Mammal Rescue at
24 hour phone support from Mystic Aquarium at 860-572-5955, x107.