Winter Seal Walk Delights, Even Without The Seals

March 3, 2017

Hikers and birdwatchers walk across Plum Island on Sandy Hook’s bayside on Saturday morning.

Story and photo by Jay Cook

SANDY HOOK – It was hard to believe the amount of fog that covered the barrier island on an unseasonably warm Saturday morning.

While crossing the Captain Joseph Azzolina Memorial Bridge from Highlands to Sea Bright, neither the ocean or the bay were visible from the bridge’s peak.

Yet, at the tip of Hook, skies were clear and sunny for 70 people gathered at the third Winter Seal and Waterfowl Walk hosted by the American Littoral Society (ALS), all anxious to catch a glimpse of some of the local Harbor Seals that call Sandy Hook home from November through March. It was one of the largest number of nature lovers the society has attracted to its walks.

When one of them asked if the dense fog would push the mammals away, the society’s executive director Pim Van Hemmen admitted he had no control, “We don’t own the seals,” he joked.

Leading the tour was Jeff Dement, an ALS naturalist and director of the fish-tagging program. He claimed the fog was “conspiring against us this morning.” Unfortunately, he was right. No more than a trio of seals could be seen resting on the sandbars. During low tide, they like to stay bayside in an effort to catch some rays and relax from a day’s worth of fishing, he explained.

The hikers were greeted by a surprise appearance from a bottlenose dolphin, kicking towards the Shrewsbury River.

Instead of waiting on the fog to pass, Dement led a caravan of cars down to Plum Island, a marshy outcropping famous for its bird displays. Collections of Buffleheads and Brant Geese floated off in the distance, with the bridge towering in the background. Dement said it was one of the most striking views along the East Coast.

Lot E marked the final parking destination for the remaining hikers, just as the clock hit noon. A quick walk along the beach was followed by a hike though the Old Dune Trail. Shade from Sandy Hook’s maritime forest, mostly old cedar and holly trees, guided the group for a walk alongside prickly pear cacti and a surprising fresh-water pond.

“It’s pretty special, and endangered as well,” said Dement. “The National Park Service takes that piece of land pretty darn seriously.”

Across the street, binoculars and cameras were unpackaged as the fog began to lift, ever so slightly. Still, to no avail, it remained thick, right around the time when the tide was dead-low.

Although the Harbor Seals made only a brief appearance, it was still an enjoyable and educational morning for the 40 or so who stayed for the whole tour. It highlighted other areas of Sandy Hook not everyone sees when simply parking at the beaches.

“The seals are what gets everyone out here – people are excited to see seals – but there’s a lot more out here to rope them into the environment,” said Stevie Thorsen, ALS’s educational director.

After a short, three-minute drive back to the society’s headquarters at 18 Hartshorne Drive, the naturalists were greeted with the aroma of New England clam chowder wafting out the back door.

While sitting on the front porch, with a cup of that chowder in hand, Victoria Lesoine looked to her son Nikolaus, who enjoyed the limited seal-watching action that morning.

“He was excited just to see their heads bobbing,” said Lesoine, a Hawthorne resident.

“I just want him to spend more time outdoors,” she continued. “Get him involved in the environment, less time spent on video games.”

Damani Parran, a father of three, drove 40 minutes for the walk that morning. While growing up outside of Washington, D.C., he said he never fully embraced the city. That just fuels him more as a dad.

“I’m trying to make sure my kids have memories with all of this now,” he said.

The next Winter Seal and Waterfowl Walk is scheduled for Monday, March 6 at 10 a.m. Spectators are advised to dress for the weather and expect to walk a mile on sandy beaches. The cost is $5 per person. For more information, visit littoralsociety.org or call 732-291-0055.

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