Seals of Approval

Written By: Jerry  Zezima

Unlike a lot of seals, who have managed to gain steady employment in circuses and aquariums, I have never tried to balance a beach ball on my nose. Considering the prominence of my proboscis, nobody could tell the difference.

But I once was a seal trainer for a day at the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead. I even have a framed certificate and a photo of me being kissed by a 465-pound sea lion named Herbie.

I figured this valuable experience would come in handy when my wife, Sue, and I went on a seal walk with our favorite naturalist, Dr. Artie Kopelman.

A few years ago, Kopelman led me, Sue and about 80 other people on a whale watch off Montauk. Everyone but Kopelman, the captain and yours truly got violently ill. Sue was green for three days. Even the whales must have been sick because none showed up.

There was little chance of a repeat on the seal walk because we would be on terra firma, not the open ocean. (The ocean, by the way, is open until 9 p.m. on Thursdays.)

Lacking seal blubber, which made me want to blubber when I realized how cold it was, I was bundled in four layers of clothing to ward off the 30-degree temperature, 20-mph wind gusts and 20-degree windchill, conditions that are positively balmy for seals. Then again, I’m positively balmy myself, so I was prepared to perambulate with a pack of pinniped pals.

So were 40 or so fellow seal walkers who huddled in Cupsogue Beach County Park in Westhampton and were warmly welcomed, figuratively speaking, by Kopelman, a college professor and president of the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island.

Before we set out on our walk, Kopelman warned, “Never get in the water with a seal.”

That’s because — if you don’t freeze to death first — seals will eat you. Or try to balance you on their noses.

Peg Hart is living (fortunately) proof. “I was bitten by an elephant seal,” said Hart, a naturalist who specializes in birds (she was, after all, talking to a birdbrain) but also works with marine mammals.

“It happened in San Francisco,” Hart recalled. “The seal had to be restrained so its blood could be drawn.”

Instead, the seal drew Hart’s blood. “It was a fluke,” she said, rolling up her sleeve to reveal a long scar.

“Looks more like it was a tooth,” I said.

Hart left her seal in San Francisco. Now she’s back on the East End and going on seal walks with Kopelman.

Curiously, seals don’t like to walk, preferring to take mass transit by swimming together, which made the seal walk a misnomer.

The two dozen harbor seals we saw were about 150 yards away, lounging on the beach but not, as far as I could see, reading romance novels.

I did get a better view of them when I looked through Kopelman’s telescope. One of the bigger ones turned on its side and waved a flipper at me. I waved back.

“I can see some of my regulars,” said Kopelman, noting that a few of the seals return to the beach every year from Canada, where they have summer homes. On the water, of course.

Despite the difficult conditions, it was a fascinating experience. Kopelman, who has been leading such groups for more than 20 years, had great insight not only about marine mammals but terrestrial ones, too.

“A couple of weeks ago, this kid showed up in shorts, with no gloves and no hat,” Kopelman said. “He must have eaten dumb flakes for breakfast. Then there was the woman who asked, ‘Do seals have bones?’ And some people want to know where the bathroom is. I always say, ‘It’s at home.’ Thanks to humans, these seal walks can be a real adventure.”