Photo courtesy Save The Bay.

by Kate Peikin

For the pinniped voyeurs among us.

Bowen's Ferry Landing, Bowen's Wharf, Newport
(401) 203-7325
www.savebay.org

You might think they'd escaped from an aquarium, or maybe from the confines of a zoo. Plain as day, right in front of you, is a big group of barking, whiskery harbor seals. They have artfully draped themselves over rocks, perfectly poised to catch the afternoon sun on their speckled backs. And they're checking you out. You're not crazy. They're supposed to be there. In fact, for months on end, they live right here in Rhode Island.

Harbor seals are winter visitors in Narragansett Bay; they live along the coasts of Canada and Maine, but they head south during our colder months in search of (in their opinions, anyway) "warmer" waters. You can see for yourself aboard a public seal watch tour, offered by Save The Bay. While on board, you will not only get an up-close look at the seals, but you will also catch yourself learning a great deal about these fascinating creatures.

Their presence here is encouraging, because once upon a time, in the not-too-distant past, Narragansett Bay was inhospitable to marine mammals. By 1970, the pollution in Narragansett Bay had risen to dangerous levels. Decades of sewage dumping, industrial toxin pollution, and the development of energy facilities along our shoreline were threatening the survival of marine life, and the health of all Rhode Islanders. The nonprofit Save The Bay formed that same year, as founding members recognized the importance of preserving this estuary. With the support of the Rhode Island community, they rallied to protect and restore Narragansett Bay, and 1970 became a crucial turning point in the bay's health.

Shipboard outings are just one of the ways Save The Bay allows people to explore Narragansett Bay. Their first educational vessel, the M/V Aletta Morris, has provided marine education programs since 2001. Year-round, it is host to thousands of schoolchildren and teachers, all in pursuit of a fun and hands-on science curriculum—or, at least a field trip. During winter weekends and school holidays, the Aletta is available for public enjoyment, as children and adults participate in Save The Bay Seal Watch Tours, which depart from Bowen's Wharf in Newport (additional tours run out of Viking Marina in Westerly, and Borden Light Marina in Fall River, Massachusetts). In 2005 and 2006 alone, the seal watch tours attracted nearly 2,000 people, all eager to catch a glimpse of the seals. (The seals catch a glimpse of the people, too, and there's no telling which of the parties involved is more curious!)

The most common seal found here in Narragansett Bay is the harbor seal, although on occasion, a gray seal, hooded seal, and even the odd harp seal may be spotted, as well. Their favorite low-tide "haul-out" spots include Rome Point in North Kingstown, Sakonnet Point in Little Compton, and Usher Cove in Bristol. Rose Island in Newport is another prime area for seal-spotting, and Save The Bay's tours circle this island in their search for harbor seals.

Typically smaller than most other types of seals, harbor seals can weigh up to 250 pounds and are approximately five to six feet in length. Their color varies widely, from gray to tan to brown, but they can be identified by their fur: a unique pattern of fine, dark spots. You can often see them hauled out on rocks throughout the bay, resting, socializing, and sunning in groups, posing in the "banana" position. (That is, lying on their sides with their tails flipped up in the air.) They are opportunistic feeders, with food choices ranging from fish and squid to crustaceans and mollusks. The oily "tears" in their eyes protect them from the salt water when diving for prey, and they can use their whiskers to sense vibrations and underwater objects. Like most "true seals," they have no outer ear flap (or "pinna"), but they have excellent hearing, up to fourteen times greater underwater than above water. They also have a keen sense of smell. Perhaps most incredible is their ability to make long dives, sometimes lasting up to thirty minutes!

Harbor seals like Narragansett Bay because their natural predators, such as killer whales and sharks, do not venture here. That does not mean, however, that harbor seals are safe from humans. Their habitat, especially, presents a challenge, as they tend to live in populated areas. Harbor seals live both on land and in the water, so they can be found along coasts, near the mouths of rivers, on beaches, and once in a while, farther inland. Elsewhere in the world, they are considered a "threat" to fishermen, and are shot and commercially exploited. Here in the U.S., they are accidentally hit by boats or caught in fishing nets, and pollution and the subsequent loss of their food sources is a constant danger. Eric Pfirrmann, lead captain at Save The Bay, remembers a time when a low-flying Coast Guard helicopter chased a group of seals off the rocks near Rose Island. While it may be obvious that big, loud vehicles would scare the seals off, it is the smaller craft that are most threatening. Unknowingly, many people approach seals in boats or kayaks. To the seals, these low-profile craft resemble predators, and they are sure to leave in a hurry. Human interference remains a problem for harbor seals, but the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 offers them some protection. This Act prohibits touching, feeding, or harassing marine mammals. A distance of fifty yards is federally mandated for viewing them. Luckily, people are learning to give harbor seals their space, and many populations in the U.S. are recovering.

Some seal-watching tours run for two hours, and include a stopover at Rose Island. Located just south of the Newport Bridge, Rose Island is home to the Rose Island Wildlife Refuge, the bastion of Fort Hamilton (a remnant of the eighteenth century), and several naval structures built during World Wars I and II. But the gem of the island is the Rose Island Lighthouse, which has been painstakingly cleaned and restored to its 1912 appearance by the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation (RILF). The renovation of the lighthouse, built circa 1870, was no easy task. For about a century after it was first lit, the Rose Island Lighthouse served as a navigational aid to sailors in the lower bay. Unfortunately, the opening of the Pell (formerly Newport) Bridge in the early 1970s rendered the Rose Island Lighthouse insignificant, and it was abandoned shortly thereafter. Over the next decade, it endured extensive damage from both weather and vandalism. Fortunately for the lighthouse, a group of citizens gathered together, forming the RILF in 1984. During its restoration, the lighthouse was designed to be an environmentally efficient building, "a guiding light to conservation." And it did become a guiding light once again: the Rose Island Lighthouse's beacon was triumphantly re-lit in 1993.

Today, the lighthouse operates as an independent structure, requiring no mainland utilities. The interior of the lighthouse serves as a "living museum," full of anecdotes, pictures, antique furniture, and vivid memories; visitors can see how its former keepers and their families lived, worked, and played. Much of the rest of Rose Island remains (perhaps as it should be) wild and unexplored, providing habitat for local wildlife. Wintering harbor seals surely appreciate this fact, and reliably make the rocks around Rose Island a low-tide hangout spot.

The RILF had been running their own seal-watch cruises for about six years before partnering with Save The Bay in 2001. But even for seal watch "regulars," the tours always provide a new adventure. Reada Evans, education director for the RILF, notes: "We do have amazing experiences out there—no two trips are the same. And I still get a rush every time when we see the seals hauled out on the rocks. I love people's reactions when they see the seals for the first time. These beautiful wild animals live in our backyards, and so many Rhode Islanders never get to see them…"

The seal watch cruises are weather-dependent, running on weekends and school vacation days, November through April. For Save The Bay's current season schedule and ticket prices, go to www.savebay.org/seals. Reservations are recommended. Call (401) 203-7325 or email savebay@savebay.org for more information. Before you embark on a seal watch, make sure to dress warmly (since the boat is partially enclosed), but the boat is heated as well. Save The Bay provides binoculars, too, for an extra-close view. Happy seal watching!

At the time she wrote this for us in 2007, Kate Peikin was a Development Associate at Save The Bay. At age four, her swimming lessons gave her more than just a sound ducking—they gave her the skills she needed to stay afloat on Narragansett Bay. The days of the Rainbow Brite bathing suit may be over, but Kate continues to be fascinated by Rhode Island's shores and marine life. She is a sponge for information, a trait that found good use during her time at Save The Bay.

Information

Tours: See full schedule for details.

Cost: (as of 2015) Non-members, $22; members of Save The Bay, seniors, and children ages 3-12, $17.

Time required: one hour (some tours run two hours)

Hours: Weekends and school vacation weeks Thanksgiving through the end of April.

Finding it: From Route 195 take Massachusetts exit 8 in Fall River to Route 24 south; Route 24 becomes Route 114; follow it into Newport; approximately one mile from the city line, just past Newport City Hall, turn right onto Marlborough Street; proceed to the traffic light on America's Cup Avenue and take a left; follow America's Cup Avenue through two traffic lights; Bowen's Wharf is on the right at the second light; Bowen's Landing is located directly behind The Ship's Store and Rigging.

From Route 95 take exit 9 to Route 4; Route 4 becomes Route 1; take the exit for Route 138 toward Jamestown and Newport; follow 138 across the Jamestown Bridge, Jamestown, and the Newport Bridge ($2 toll); take first exit off the Newport Bridge (Scenic Newport), turn right off the exit ramp and drive straight through the first set of traffic lights; at the second set of lights turn right onto America's Cup Avenue; follow America's Cup until the fourth set of traffic lights; Bowen's Wharf is on the right.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to oceans or rave-hat-wearing phlegm. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited August 27, 2015

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