Spotting seals in the surf

Whiskered mammals make Jones Beach their home


Many residents of Wantagh consider Jones Beach State Park their go-to beach. But what they may not know is that there are also ocean-dwelling mammals that call the park their seasonal home.

Last Sunday, Jones Beach’s Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center hosted one of its many educational seal walks at the park, open to all. With as many as a dozen harbor seals bobbing in and out of the water, onlookers snapped pictures from the Field 10 shoreline. 

“I think it’s important, because a lot of people don’t even know that seals live here on Long Island,” said Suzanne Montefinise, the nature center’s director for nearly five years. “They usually head down here from the North to gather in warmer waters. This is sort of like their Florida home.”

Jones Beach first started hosting seal walks in 2002, when naturalists saw a growing interest in the creatures, which frolic there each winter. In 2008, park officials expanded the family program and held almost a dozen walks during January, February and March.

The walks, which are led by two guides, usually last two hours, with a 30-minute seminar at the start, at which educators teach children about four species of seals — harbor, hooded, harp and gray — and why they show up at Jones Beach.

“They react very similarly to dogs and cats,” Montefinise said of the creatures. “People usually become very excited from the shoreline when they see a seal just floating around — and they are just as interested in us, sort of like a mammal-to-mammal experience.”

She added that participants also observed other types of marine life such as mussels and various species of duck.

“It helps people connect more with the oceans and bays, and understand how important ecosystems are and the creatures living in them,” Montefinise said. “It’s something families can share together, and a way to get outside on the beach during the winter days. Sometimes you won’t even see one seal, but it’s still bonding with nature.”

For many, the walks are also good escape from technology and the weekly routine. “This nature program forces people to talk and not be in front of the TV — something I think families are missing out on these days,” Montefinise added. “These animals are endangered, and it’s important we let others know they’re out there.”

With eight more seal walks set for the coming weeks, many Long Islanders will venture out to Jones Beach to take part in the fun. The tour also gives park officials the chance to share other educational programs.