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Sun with the seals

By Suzanne Thompson

Publication: The Day

Published March 11. 2013 4:00AM

Most of us humans feel our southern New England winter has gone on long enough, so we forget that our coast is a balmy southern hangout for migratory harbor seals. Project Oceanology makes it easy for us to observe and learn more about the marine mammals with its annual weekend seal watch cruises around Fisher's Island.

Project O, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year as a not-for-profit marine science and environmental education program for students and the public, has been offering these seal tours for at least 10 years, according to Lauren Rader, the program's chief instructor.

"The seals are migratory animals, they move from the Gulf of Maine down here to Long Island Sound starting in mid-October, and they head back north the end of April to pup, or bear their young, and mate again for the next year," she says.

The tours, on Project O's 56-foot Envirolab II vessel, leave from the center's docks at the University of Connecticut's Avery Point Campus in Groton on Saturdays and Sundays in March. Project O has two large observation boats, both Coast Guard inspected, passenger-carrying vessels equipped with lifejackets. This time of year, its 65-foot Envirolab I is in service on the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, giving eagle watching tours along the river.

The boat cruises over to Fisher's Island Sound, which Rader says has several spots for good seal watching. There's the East, West and Middle Clump rock outcroppings and the primary viewing spot for seals, Hungry Point, on the north shore of the island.

Harbor seals are the most common marine mammals found in the Long Island Sound, according to Project O, which surveys several locations in Fisher's Island Sound to observe and count the wintering population. A competitor for fishing resources (seals can eat 5 to 20 pounds of fish a day), they have been protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act since 1972.

"The historic populations had shrunk due to bounties and other factors, but once they were protected, their numbers are expanding again and their population range has started to expand," she says. "Their space is getting limited further north so we're seeing some seals coming earlier and staying longer. It's not unusual to see a harbor seal down here in June or July."

Harbor seals, which were first noticed again in the Sound in the 1980s, are the predominant species. The cruises might come across grey seals, which look very similar, or harp and hooded seals, known as ice seals.

"It's a very rare occasion to see the ice seals, so that would be a fun sighting for the day," she says.

One of Project O's objectives is to help educate the public more to appreciate seals and all marine life. Rader points out that includes keeping a respectful distance from a beached seal. Adult males get up to 200 pounds and about five feet long at maturity, about 6 years old; females weigh about 40 pounds less.

"People definitely should not approach a beached harbor seal," she says. "The only way seals have to protect themselves is to bite. They have a pretty nasty bite with seriously bad bacteria. Not only could you be arrested because it is illegal to harm or harass any marine animal, to approach or touch them, you could get a pretty serious infection."

Instead, would-be rescuers should call the Mystic Marinelife Aquarium, which runs the local stranding network, at 860-572-5955, ext. 107.

Project O also is preparing to celebrate its 40th anniversary with an open house free to the public on Saturday, April 27, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. There will be speakers, food and tours of the Project O boats and laboratory classroom facilities.

Suzanne hosts a weekly CT Outdoors radio show on WLIS 1420 AM & WMRD 1150 AM from 12:30 to 1 p.m., or listen to archived show in the On Demand section of www.wliswmrd.net. Reach her at suzanne.s.thompson@sbcglobal.net.

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READY, SET, CRUISE

Each cruise starts with a 20-minute video presentation in Project O's building on the UConn Campus at Avery Point, which houses the campus cafeteria. Departures vary by day, timed around low tide, the best time of day for seal watching.

The cruises are for children 6 years and older and adults. Advance registration is required. It's $25 for adults, $20 for ages 6 to 12.

Check the Project O website for timing, recommended winter garb and gear. Reservations are required and can be made by calling (860) 445-9007 between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Plan to arrive a half hour before the start of each program. There is ample parking in front of the building.

Details at www.oceanology.org.

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