Seals Revisited

By Vladimir Brezina

Every winter, Swinburne Island in New York Harbor is home to a healthy population of seals. And every winter, we paddle out to see them.

But so far this year, our seal-watching trips have all gone awry in one way or another. Last time, we ended up having quite a different kind of adventure in Red Hook, Brooklyn

So, on Saturday, Johna and I made a determined effort to paddle out to Swinburne Island. Here are a few photos.

We leave from Pier 40 on the West Side of Manhattan. Across the river, the towers of Jersey City.

Every time I paddle past the site of the World Trade Center, I can't help but take a few photos. The new towers rise higher and higher...

We paddle across the Bay Ridge Flats toward the Verrazano Narrows (photo by Johna).

It's a silvery gray day, with shafts of sunlight breaking through at intervals. The sea feels empty and lonely.

We pass under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge

... and creep quietly up on Swinburne Island.

As we approach the island, we scan for seals...

Seal off the port bow!

The seal takes one look at us and dives.

The seals are unusually skittish this time, and keep their distance.

Seal with the Statue of Liberty! Admittedly, the Statue is 8 miles away; even the bridge is 2 miles away...

(As we were leaving Swinburne Island, the American Princess motored up to the island, apparently also on a seal-watching trip… But we prefer to seal-watch our way!)

We paddle back.

But first, a cup of tea!

We paddle back across the Upper Bay

... in the hazy sunshine.

Finally, as the day comes to a close, we make the final crossing to the Battery

... through, all of a sudden, rather heavy traffic (and with a Coast Guard escort, which it didn't seem quite advisable to photograph...).

More photos are here.

13 responses to “Seals Revisited

  1. Fantastic! Thanks so much these photos. I’m delighted. How cool to be kayaking in the East River. By the way it looks like there are buildings on Swinburne Island. I figured it would be desolate. I suppose there’s no chance you can land on the Island.


    • Hoffman and Swinburne Islands were both constructed artificially in the 19th century (this book is good on their history) and both had numerous buildings on them (housing, quarantine station, hospital, etc.). The buildings on Hoffman were eventually razed, while those on Swinburne were not—but they are now just ruined empty shells.

      Landing on the islands is not legal—they are part of the Gateway National Recreation Area and are bird sanctuaries. And the birds certainly complain if you come too close! However, it is possible to land on Swinburne Island from a small boat. There is a tiny beach that is usually under water but can be stepped out onto if you know it’s there. Or you can just scramble up the rocks…

      Here is an article that describes landing on Swinburne Island for the purposes of cormorant research.


  2. you make the trip seem so effortless. thanks for the report.


    • Well, it is a fairly easy trip. At least it seems easy enough until you are committed ;-) You ride the ebb current down and reach Swinburne in under two hours. You spend some time sitting around in the boat off Swinburne looking at seals. Then you notice that you are getting very cold in the wind without activity—it’s time paddle back! Hopefully by this time the ebb will have eased, but the flood current back is usually disappointing. So it takes more like three hours to get back to Manhattan. We don’t seem to be able to make this trip shorter than about 6 hours, often more like 7.


  3. My husband and I recently kayaked down near La Jolla, CA and we saw so many seals. They were not afraid to come very very close. Also, we saw a pod (?) of dolphins fishing. They swam/fished right below us. I was scared. Absolutely amazing. I’m glad you got to see the seals, but sorry they weren’t being friendly.


    • Yes, these encounters are amazing… On these trips, we try to not disturb the seals too much—we mostly just sit in our boats off the island and wait for the seals to investigate us. Sometimes they come close, sometimes they don’t.

      New York Harbor is probably the southernmost place on the East Coast to reliably see seals in any quantity (although some are reported along the Jersey shore). But still there aren’t so many compared to the numbers just a bit farther north. Last summer on Cape Cod, for instance, we really did see hundreds of seals.


  4. Awesome photos! Would love to see seals so close up :)


  5. Actually, the seals in New York Harbor tend to keep their distance and can best be described as “wary”, compared to seals (or sea lions) in California or Maine, where they are either used to people or are so much in their element that they are unconcerned about people. Even on Cape Cod last summer, the seals were much more confident:


  6. in the 1980s i used to kayak a lot, mostly new hampshire and maine. i recall once off kennebunkport in very clear waters of variable depth (it’s rocky) a half dozen seals swimming around and under the kayak. they were fast, and tended to come up right behind the boat, like they were curious but aware of the importance of avoiding the “eyes” side of us.


    • Yes, they do that.They obviously know which way we are facing when we are sitting in our kayaks. Even this past Saturday, Johna was laughing at me because for the longest time as I was scanning for seals in front, there apparently was a seal just behind me, staring intently at my back…


  7. Mad Queen Linda

    Going along with you vicariously on the Red Hook adventure was thrilling, and I’m glad to come back and see your excellent seal photos. Thanks for posting! We stayed in Jersey City near the photo you posted, and I never imagined kayakers there.


  8. Pingback: Seals and Swells on Sunday | Wind Against Current

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