Seals and Swells on Sunday

By Vladimir Brezina

On Sunday, Johna and I paddled once more to Swinburne Island to see seals.

Swinburne Island, a small island in New York Harbor just south of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, hosts a healthy population of seals every winter. We’ve already visited them once this winter. But now in April, especially with spring arriving so early this year, we were wondering if the seals would still be there.

We were not disappointed!

Even though it’s been unusually warm all winter, Sunday is a normal spring day: a bit chilly in the wind, overcast but with patches of blue sky and even the sun, sparkling on the water, making an appearance at times.

We try to creep up on Swinburne Island without the seals noticing us.

The birds give us away, of course.

We sit quietly in our kayaks and scan for seals in the water off the island.

Swinburne Island is a nesting site for cormorants, whose poop has done quite a job on all the trees on the island.

My regular camera for kayak photography is the Pentax Optio W90, basically just a fancy, and waterproof, point-and-shoot camera. But there’s only so much that can be achieved with such a camera when a seal head pops up thirty or fifty yards away. So I’ve brought along my “good” camera, a Nikon D80 with a 55-300mm telephoto lens.

Looking through the viewfinder, I see the American Princess arriving punctually on its regular weekend seal-watching cruise.

But what’s that in the lower right corner of the frame?

I quickly refocus on it…

And there’s another one!

Soon, seal heads are all around, looking at us, but keeping their distance. We even see one or two tiny seals—this year’s babies!—that, as yet more trusting than the adults, approach us more closely before diving down with a tiny splash. (Unfortunately, no photos!)

In the meantime, the American Princess has circled round and is approaching the island.

And it’s packed! At times it lists noticeably as the seal-watchers all crowd to the Swinburne side of the boat (just as the Circle Line boats that circle Manhattan always list toward the Manhattan side…)

Most of the time, scanning for far-away seal heads, I have the telephoto lens zoomed all the way out to 300mm. And looking through it is alarming.  There are now some swells rolling in from the open Atlantic. They are quite small—no bigger than about 2 feet. But looking through the lens I have the feeling that I am in one of those submarine movies where the captain is looking through the periscope up at swells that tower over the boat (before subsiding momentarily to reveal an enemy destroyer coming on at full speed, of course!).

(Spot the seal in the photo above!)

And I can finally see how other kayak photographers get those dramatic rough-water shots. Through the telephoto lens (and with judicious cropping), even these small swells appear pretty impressive!

Johna tries out her newly-honed strokes as another swell rears up behind.

I switch back to the wide-angle (28mm) Pentax. The sea resumes its flat, calm look. But the clouds are beginning to look ominous.

After rafting up for some tea, we head back to Manhattan. The rain begins just as we are putting the boats away.

In sum: Kayak photography with a DSLR with a long telephoto lens is a revelation! Now, I just have to solve the little problem of how to take sharp photos with it from a bouncing kayak. And it would be good if it were waterproof…

27 responses to “Seals and Swells on Sunday

  1. Love the seal with its neck (uh, do seals even have necks?) sticking way up out of the water, and that last shot of Manhattan. And that is a dramatic shot of brave Johna weathering the great waves.

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    • That’s called “bottling” behavior—with their bodies vertical in the water, they can stick their heads quite far above the surface to look around (and apparently they can sleep in the water in a similar posture as well).

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      • Dr. Artie Kopelman

        Bottling is when the seals snout is pointed straight up , it’s an in-water resting position. What the seals is doing in the photo is the equivalent of spy-hopping; i. e. , looking around for potential threats.

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      • Thanks for the clarification! That makes sense, and the posture with the snout pointed straight up (different from the posture here) is pretty distinctive.

        However, across sites on the web that at least seem like they should know, the terminology appears to be quite imprecise—sometimes almost the opposite. Here, for instance:

        “They float this way holding several postures. The most common is the head up or “bottling” posture. The head is above the water and parallel to the surface. The rest of the body is positioned straight down into the water. A variation on the bottling posture is what I call the nose to sky position. For reasons of their own the seals will point their nose directly upward as though looking at the sky.”

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        • Vladimir,
          The amount of misinformation on the web is tremendous. I’m a marine mammal population ecologist and have been involved in seal and whale research here in NY since the mid 1980’s, so I’m better able than most to wade through the on-line errors. Bottling got it’s name because seals in that position look exactly like floating bottles; in fact I once led a vessel over to observe a bottling seal that ended being a Budwiser bottle. If you and others want more info about the marine mammals here in NY, take a look at http://cresli.org (The Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island’s web page).

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      • The web contains misinformation? Who knew?! ;-)

        Artie, thanks so much for your comments and for the link to your site. You’ve got some really useful information there and lots of lovely seal photos!

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  2. Johna Till Johnson

    Yes, the great, great, GREAT waves! Huge! Dangerous! Scary! :-) :-)

    Actually, it was a little bouncier than usual, but nothing spectacular. It’s eye-opening how much difference the camera makes.

    Thanks for commenting.

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  3. Wow! How cool is that! Sounds like a great way to spend a Sunday. You got some great shots!

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  4. WONDERFUL, THANKS FOR THE TRIP, MJ oops!

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  5. Wow! Seals in NY Harbor! I never knew. Great shootin’!

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    • Yes, they’ve been winter regulars at Swinburne for more than a decade now. We’ve seen seals every trip from November or December until at least April. They are so predictable that the American Princess can make a business out of them!

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  6. Michael Lawrence in DC

    Seals have become regular inhabitants of Pleasant Bay on Cape Cod where I paddle. Lots of fun to see them. But on the Cape, they’ve attracted attention from sharks who have also been spotted in the area. Thanks for your postings. Enjoying them a lot.

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    • We were up on the Cape for several days’ paddling last summer and saw dozens of seals along the shoreline of Monomoy “Island” (see here) and also in Cape Cod Bay (see here). We were a bit surprised, because we’ve come to think of seals as cold-water creatures and here they were in 75-degree water (in Cape Cod Bay). But I guess they enjoy a warm-water vacation just like we do when we go down to Florida…

      Sharks… yes, one of these days we’ll have a Great White in New York Harbor—and it won’t be the first time!

      Thanks for commenting—glad you like the blog!

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  7. Glad it went well! Someday soon I’ll get around to posting our shots (and Egret video) from our Sunday nature tour in Central Park.

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  8. I like this very much. The seals of course but also the way the background of sea and city, not to mention you two kayaking, shows how our 21st century life can be in tune with the world. I think your pictures help me to value it without sentiment or idealism. Thanks

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  9. To kayak amongst seals has got to be an adventure of a lifetime.

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    • Well, seals are becoming so common in New York Harbor that soon we won’t be giving them a second look… ;-)

      Seriously, seals are always fun! But for a truly heart-stopping experience, try coming across a whale in your kayak! This is fairly rare on the U.S. East Coast (although much more common on the West Coast). It happened to me only once, but I remember the feeling vividly to this day!

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  10. I think I spotted it!
    What great shots!!

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