Harbor seal spotted in Inwood Hill Park
by Carla Zanoni
Nature lovers have visited Inwood to see the neighborhood’s abundant wildlife for years. Birds, raccoons, fox, skunk and even coyote are frequently seen roaming the hills of Inwood Hill Park. Now those lovers of the natural world can rejoice in at least one new addition, a harbor seal.
Rumors of a seal spending time on the shore of Inwood Hill Park over the past two to three weeks were confirmed this weekend when a park ranger caught sight of the aquatic mammal waddling its body along the pier off Columbia University’s W. 218th Street boathouse. The slippery visitor was officially spotted and photographed by Urban Park Ranger Rob Mastrianni on Saturday, April 18.
“Inwood is becoming a great place to see wildlife,” Richard Simon, an Urban Park Ranger captain who works with Mastrianni, said of his department’s seal sighting.
After Mastrianni photographed the seal, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation contacted the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, the only group authorized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to respond to marine life sightings in New York State. The two groups have since been working together to monitor the seal’s safety.
Rob DiGiovanni, Riverhead Foundation president and senior biologist, said that sightings like this have become more frequent in past years and do not always indicate that an animal is in distress.
“This is a situation where it appears to be a somewhat robust harbor seal that is not in need of being picked up,” he said. “Over the past decade we have been seeing them more and more. We encourage the public to be aware of the animals and report any sightings.”
Seals were once regular habitants of the area. According to Simon, the Urban Park Ranger, the sea creatures were once so abundant in the area during the early 20th century that local fisherman perceived them as competition for fish and hunted them down to low levels.
Over the past decade, the population of seals, including harbor, harp and hooded seals, has grown in size. A recent study counted approximately 20 seals in the New York City area in addition to other marine wildlife. Last summer a seal was observed in the Red Hook area and last month a humpback whale was spotted just north of New York City's Verrazano Bridge.
Although Simon called the seal “very, very cute,” he warned that New Yorkers who come into contact with the animal should take the same precautions as they would when coming upon any wild animal. He added that the biggest danger when coming upon a seal might not be human contact, but that of interactions with unleashed dogs.
“A seal is in many ways like an aquatic dog with canines,” Simon said. “They have sharp teeth and can bite you, and as a mammal they are susceptible to virus and disease. If a dog and a seal get into a fight, one of them is going to get hurt.”
Seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which states it is against the law to touch, feed or otherwise endanger a seal. Anyone who comes into contact with a seal must keep a distance of 50 yards from the animal.
Simon suggested that New Yorkers call 311 to report any wild animal sightings.
“New Yorkers often believe that wild animals don’t belong here and that something needs to be done to remove the animals,” he said. “Calling 311 should be fine. It’s not necessary to call 911 unless if it’s that rare case of seeing a lion crossing the street.”
Although finding a lion seems unlikely, Inwoodites might want to keep that advice in mind just in case.
The Manhattan Times is the bilingual newspaper of Washington Heights and Inwood.