This Year’s Visit to the Swinburne Island Seals

By Vladimir Brezina

Last week’s excitement about the East River Dolphin reminded us that we hadn’t seen our old friends, the Swinburne Island seals, in almost a year, since last April in fact. So on Sunday we paddled down to visit them again.

We paddled up to Swinburne Island in what we hoped was a stealthy manner, cameras at the ready.

IMGP1247 cropped small

Unfortunately, with the morning’s forecast of significant winds and, presumably, waves and spray—which in the event did not materialize—I left my non-waterproof DSLR, with its telephoto lens, at home. So both of us were limited to our little waterproof cameras—not really suitable for capturing the details of distant seal heads in the water.

And soon there were heads popping up all around, peering at us with a cautious curiosity. Now and then one advanced daringly close, then immediately crash-dived with a snort and a loud splash.

IMGP1248 cropped small

If you look at the photo above closely (click on it to enlarge), it shows seven seal heads. Altogether, by counting the number visible simultaneously or nearly simultaneously all around, we estimated that there were at least 15 seals around us, although there could well have been many more. There were a few small seals, presumably babies.

IMGP1242 cropped smallIMGP1280 cropped smallIMGP1321 cropped smallIMGP1300 cropped smallIMGP1308 cropped small

As usual, the seals preferred to observe us without being themselves observed. They popped up directly behind our boats and peered at us intently, then immediately dived as soon as we turned around.

IMGP1318 cropped smallIMGP1286 cropped small

As the seals heads rose out of the water in upredictable locations around us for a few seconds before disappearing again, we snapped away in the hope of capturing the decisive moment.

IMGP8210 cropped small

And indeed, in some shots, when we later examined them at home, there were seals in places where we had not even noticed them at the time…

IMGP1338 cropped small

Swinburne Island itself, although clearly hospitable to seals and seabirds, seemed more desolate than on our previous visits, even more empty of the ruins and dead trees that had covered it, probably as a result of the visit of Hurricane Sandy back in October of last year.

IMGP1314 cropped small

Then it was time for some tea on the water, if possible out of the cold wind. We considered rafting up in the lee of Swinburne Island itself, but it was clear that hundreds of gulls would seriously object. We ended up having our tea off the neighboring island, Hoffman, where the local opposition was less intense.

IMGP1345 cropped small

After tea, with the current now turned in our favor, we paddled back to the Verrazano Narrows on our way home.

IMGP1355 cropped smallIMGP1357 cropped small

And, in the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Nature had a final bonus ready for us—a porpoise (or perhaps another dolphin), calmly surfacing, arching its back, diving again…

It was in almost exactly the same spot where we had observed another porpoise two years ago, in late March 2011. Come to think of it, that previous sighting was the subject of the very first post on Wind Against Current :-)

IMGP1369 cropped smallIMGP1367 cropped small

Together with the sighting of the dolphins and seals in the East River last week, it’s hard not to feel that marine mammals are really coming back to New York Harbor!

Next up, I believe we are ready to encounter at least a  medium-sized whale…

52 responses to “This Year’s Visit to the Swinburne Island Seals

  1. WONDERFUL RIDE!

    BE ENCOURAGED! BE BLESSED!

    Like

  2. Can’t blame you for not fraternizing with the sea gulls. That’s a no-win situation! What a lovely tour, fun to see the seals, and to hear of their actions and reactions.

    Like

  3. fantastic vlad, love to see the seals and marine life returning :)

    Like

  4. Lovely seals….they just look so cute when they pop up like that, full of curiosity.

    Like

  5. How cool! Do you know what type of seals they are?

    Like

  6. It makes me happy to know that area is showing signs of returning. I just read an article late last year ( pre Sandy ) about Oyster’s working to clean up the waters in the NYC area. I’ve wondered what Sandy’s impact has had on that project. Here it is if you’re interested:
    http://news.yahoo.com/yorks-environmental-hero-oyster-163717660.html

    Thanks for sharing your Seal photos. I enjoy your posts, they make me feel like I’m with you!

    Like

    • Thanks!
      Yes, the oysters have been well publicized recently. They probably survived Sandy, although I understand that some of the incipient wetland projects that were started here and there in corners of the harbor were wiped out…

      Like

  7. Great pics! How cool having them pop up all around you like that! Now you’ll have to go back with the DSLR and see what you can capture :-D

    Like

    • I did bring it on our last trip, last April, and some of the results are here. But it’s a bit nerve-wracking to use the DSLR under any but calm conditions.

      Like

      • I can only imagine. I know how nerve-wracking it is for me when I’m photographing loons. And I’m on a nice calm lake. Even then my camera is in a dry bag unless I’m actually shooting. I do have my gear insured though, just in case.

        Like

        • Also looking through the telephoto lens while sitting in the kayak in waves is quite disturbing, because the motions you are feeling with your body are quite different from those you are seeing through the camera—the two sensory inputs clash. It’s easier if you shut your eyes—but then photography becomes difficult ;-)

          Like

  8. Looks cold, but what a great series of photos with a small camera.

    Like

  9. Enjoying your photos and trip descriptions very much! What are you wearing under the dry suits to keep warm? I’ve never gone out this early in the year.

    Like

    • Thanks, Jock!
      We usually wear several layers under the drysuits. My main layer is actually a wetsuit—not because it’s a wetsuit, but because it is a warm one-piece garment that doesn’t bunch up. Plus assorted sweaters etc. Sometimes it can be difficult to get it exactly right—on this trip I was too warm at the beginning (although happy to have all those layers once we paddled back into the cold wind). The usual expectation, I guess, is that one will be too hot some of the time and too cold the rest of the time = just right on average! :-)

      Like

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Hi Jock,
      My default (for what it’s worth) is 2-3 layers:
      Top: An ultrathin silk turtleneck (from Land’s End), a Kokotat lightweight synthetic, and a decades-old Norwegian wool sweater that was once washed in too-hot water and is now delightfully dense.
      Bottom: An ultra thin layer of thermal undies, then a Kokotat synthetic.
      Oh, and hiking socks.

      Like

  10. Wow, I never thought that seals would live in the waters off NYC. Love this post. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

  11. I love those guys–the seals, I mean.

    Like

    • You probably see some on the beaches of Staten Island, too, although they seem to like Swinburne particularly, probably because it’s shallow all around, with good fishing, and because they don’t get disturbed as much there…

      Like

  12. I spent my afternoon yesterday paddling near our local harbour seal colony. I think they see me as the first sign of spring each year. “Here comes that strange thing with the long flappy arms, must be spring!” Again, They watched and followed me for nearly an hour. Love em’. I am taken by the scene of a dolphin against an urban backdrop. Very different from my own encounters with them out here.

    Like

    • We visit the Swinburne seals throughout the winter, when we get the chance—and in spring they leave, presumably to go back up north. But they are staying longer and longer each year, it seems. Last year they were still here in April, if not later.

      We see dolphins all the time in Florida, where they are so common that nobody gives them a second look. But up here it’s different, and everyone is excited to see one :-)

      Like

  13. What wonderful encounters you two have! I love the photos – such curiosity! I particularly like the one of the seal raising itself up out of the water for a better look at you two odd semi-aquatic creatures. And then a dolphin or porpoise on the way home – wow.

    Like

    • The seals were expected—they are completely reliable at Swinburne each winter. But the porpoise was a nice surprise… :-)

      Of course, all this happens only in winter. Once the little motorboats start buzzing about—soon now—all these creatures flee…

      Like

  14. What a neat experience!

    Like

  15. And yet again, an excellent adventure. :-)

    Like

  16. That’s so cool! Do you know of any spots for seals on the Hudson River side?

    Like

  17. Wow! What a fabulous experience. No wonder you kayak in the winter.

    Like

  18. Those seal photos are just beautiful. Such gorgeous creatures. I grew up on the West coast of Ireland, with a seal colony on an island opposite our home. I used to paddle out in my kayak (a very low-tech vessel back then – some 25+ years ago!) to be amongst them. I always thought of them as the puppy-dogs of the sea. Thanks for these beautiful reminders of happy times past!

    Like

  19. Great pics! It’s amazing to be able to see seals so close to the big city…

    Like

  20. Wow, a great ride! I’ve seen harbor seals from the beach at Point Lookout, Long Island (South Shore). They do have cute puppy-like faces as commenter @1annecasey wrote. And I got to see one more closely in and out of the water at the Central Park Zoo. Never saw a dolphin/porpoise around here: what a thrill! BTW, loved your reference to “the decisive moment,” from Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of modern photojournalism.

    Like

    • Thanks, Beth!

      The decisive moment: I was wondering if someone would pick up on it! :-) I know Cartier-Bresson meant it in a much more interesting way. Here it just means press the button at the right moment, given that you can’t control the action or even the composition…

      Like

      • Johna Till Johnson

        Okay, you photography geeks are waaay too educated for me :-). Vlad and I just saw a Bill Brandt exhibit at MOMA, it’s amazing for this non-photographer to learn what goes into the art of photography…

        Like

  21. Pingback: In Memoriam: Vladimir Brezina | Wind Against Current

Comments are most welcome!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s