Where the Wild Things Are: Kayaking with Marine Mammals in New York City

By Vladimir Brezina and Johna Till Johnson

Kayaking in the waterways of New York City is a distinctly urban experience. Instead of quiet nature, New York City kayakers are treated to the sights and sounds of the city and close-up views of a man-made marine ecosystem of seawalls, docks, piers, ferries, tugs, barges, tankers, cruise ships, huge bulkers and container ships, and a myriad marine-industrial activities. The energy of the city is ever-present.

Yet, nature is present too. Between petrochemical plants, there’s a remnant of a beach, or salt-water marsh. Gulls watch from pilings. Rafts of ducks and geese float in the backwaters between piers and nest in odd corners.

And every now and again we receive a reminder that the waters of New York City are really those of the Atlantic Ocean, where wild things are.

It is late March 2011. We—a couple of hardy, or some would say foolhardy, distance kayakers—are paddling from Manhattan south through the harbor. We’re now in the Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island, about a mile north of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Sunlight is all around us, dancing off the waves.

What’s that? Vlad notices something in the water, something dark, shiny, and clearly alive. A turtle? A whale?

It’s a harbor porpoise, arcing out of the water in slow, sinuous loops. When we first catch sight of it, it takes our breath away, it’s so graceful. And it seems to be entirely aware of us, almost flirtatiously flitting from one side of our kayaks to the other. Sometimes it seems to be peeking at us.

At one point it almost bumps Vlad’s boat. He can clearly see its tail and white underbelly, but is so surprised that he fails to get a photo. During another pass, Johna swears, it chirps at her—a squeaky sound like a rusty hinge. When it surfaces close by, we can hear the sound of hard breathing through the blowhole, like a racer gasping for air.

It stays with us all the way down to the bridge, surfacing first on one side of us, then the other. Its movements are predictable: It surfaces once, does three quick arcs, then disappears for a while, reappearing somewhere else. Presumably, it is feeding in the tide rip there, where its prey fish wait for their prey to be swept toward them by the current.

Just under the bridge, we take a pit stop at a little beach on the Brooklyn side. Amazingly, w hen we resume paddling after fifteen or twenty minutes, we find that the porpoise has stayed with us. It frolics around our boats until we are about a mile south of the bridge. Then it takes a last dive and disappears to parts unknown. We hope to see it again!

Playing with the porpoise. Swinburne Island, the home of the seals, is in the background.

After the porpoise departs, we veer west toward Swinburne Island, one of two small islands a couple of miles south of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, on the Staten Island side. Our goal is to see marine mammals of another kind: Seals.

Amazingly, seals are now quite common in New York City waters. Since at least 2001 a colony of harbor seals has made its home on Swinburne Island during the winter months, returning north to Maine or Canada in summer.

We paddle to Swinburne and cruise around slowly, hoping to catch sight of some seals. We aren’t disappointed—about 20 heads pop up, round gray basketballs with black shiny eyes. They swim close, sometimes cocking their heads quizzically, then disappearing in a flurry under the water.

Johna conversing with a couple of seals

Vlad describes them as “shy but curious”—and that’s apt. They often appear flustered by eye contact, but they love watching humans. Johna is often frustrated when scanning the water for gray heads to turn and discover that two or three have been watching her from behind.

Johna watching for seals, seals watching Johna

From another trip to Swinburne Island in April 2011

The best part of this story? It’s hardly unique. This winter, we’ve visited Swinburne Island four or five times, and seen seals each time. They are so reliable that a run to “seal island” is a favorite trip for winter kayakers, and a ferry company has started seal-watching trips to the island. The Swinburne Island seals are becoming famous—they’ve recently been written up in the New Yorker.

Coney Island in the background

There are plenty of signs that the marine habitat is gradually becoming more welcoming overall. Seals have been spotted frequently in Jamaica Bay and more sporadically elsewhere in the harbor. And perhaps because the water is becoming cleaner, other marine mammals, too, are making a comeback. We see porpoises, usually in pods of five or more, every couple of years. A few years ago, kayakers encountered a pod feeding leisurely in the Hudson River right off the West Side of Manhattan. To our knowledge, no kayaker has yet encountered a large whale in the harbor. But given that they appear every few years—typically escorted by the Coast Guard and stopping marine traffic—we expect to get lucky one of these days!

More of Vlad’s photos of the porpoise and seals are here and here. For more information on marine mammals in New York City waters, see these NewYorkology, Nature Calendar, and Frogma posts.

22 responses to “Where the Wild Things Are: Kayaking with Marine Mammals in New York City

  1. Welcome Vladimir and Johna!


  2. Bonnie and Will, thanks for the welcome!!
    As you can see, we are still very much in the process of getting organized… but we hope to have some interesting stuff up soon!


  3. Nice post!

    I was on the Winter Birds and Harbor Seals boat tour this winter — it was awesome and I posted some pictures and blogged about it at http://seaandskyny.com

    Thanks for the inspiration — I am hoping to buy a kayak and store it in the basement at Stevens Institute where I work. There is a little rocky put-in where I could take it out on trips before or after work, when I need to get out on the water.

    I look forward to reading more …


    • Thanks, Philip! You got some great photos of the seals on your trip!

      And I see that your blog in general has lots of stuff relevant to us as kayakers. Are you connected with the Stevens Maritime Center site? We use it quite a bit when we go out paddling each week (even though we do notice some discrepancies between prediction and reality ;-) ).


  4. Does my porpoise look big in this dry-suit?

    Keep away from barges, Vlad and Johna!


    • Drysuits always make parts of your anatomy look exceptionally large. Mine, anyway!

      Rest assured, we keep a close lookout for barges, containerships, and other potentially hostile fauna :-)


      • Johna Till Johnson

        Hi A… actually that was me logged in as Vlad. Just in case you’re wondering about the response :-). But yes, barges and other scary boats are always on our radar.


  5. Love the descriptions of NYC from the water. Gifted writers, you are!


  6. Spectacular. I’m fascinated with the return of seals to NY Harbor, and delighted to hear of your encounters. They used to very rare in the area, but have been returning over the past few decades. Last winter, I came across a baby seal pup, resting on an otherwise empty beach out on Long Island. Delighted to read this post.


    • Glad you liked it!

      Yes, in the last decade or so the seals have been pretty reliable each winter around Swinburne Island. Every time we’ve gone we’ve seen some. In fact, now that the water is cooling and summer’s harbor traffic is gone, it’s about time for them to show up for the 2011-2012 season!


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  12. Sweet as a Picture

    all these sightings! exciting!


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