By Daniel H. King
BUZZARDS BAY — On a beautiful winter day, dozens of curious area residents headed out into Buzzards Bay to see some of the South Coast’s least-seen inhabitants, seals. The Lloyd Center for the Environment hosted their annual Seal Watch and Cuttyhunk Island Tour aboard the M/V Cuttyhunk on a temperate and sunny Saturday. The cruise was hosted by Lloyd Center Research Associate Jamie Bogart, who has been hosting the trip since 2000.
As part of the annual cruise, people got an up close view of their uncommon and often forgotten neighbors, harbor and gray seals. Most of the seals on the island and in the bay were harbor seals, which come in a variety of color patterns, but there were also a few, much larger gray seals. “The gray seals are really cool because they’re so big,” noted Mr. Bogart, who still gets excited about seeing the creatures after so many years.
The vessel’s captain, Jono Billings, who regularly takes people out on seal watches, explained that the seals came into the bay a lot earlier this year, around September, and noted they’ve been staying around a lot later than usual. Captain Billings suggested “the seal watches are fun because it’s so different out here (in Buzzards Bay) in the winter.” Admiring the bare, desolate islands, the captain added, “When we do the winter run around the Elizabeths (the island chain including Cuttyhunk and Penikese), it’s just amazing to see those islands in their pure starkness.”
After about 45 minutes of motoring across the bay, the vessel finally arrived at Gull Island, just outside Cuttyhunk and Penikese Islands. The seals were abundant, hauled out on both the rocks and the tidal beach, and swimming in the water around the boat. Clearly experienced at bringing watchers close to the seals, the captain urged his passengers not to yell or slam any doors. “We have to move in on them kind of quietly, because I don’t want to scare them all,” he announced on the microphone.
After the captain passed the mic to the tour leader, Mr. Bogart gave a brief lesson on the local seals. Mr. Bogart explained seals are warm-blooded marine mammals who give live birth to their young, nurse them with very rich milk, and have hair and fur. To keep warm in the frigid waters and aid in buoyancy, Mr. Bogart noted “They have blubber that provides warmth and insulation.” He explained that seals are adapted to live most of their lives in the water, noting that they even sleep in the water, naturally bobbing to the surface to breathe.
Fellow Lloyd Center naturalist and tour leader Jasmine Smith-Gillen further explained seals have a gestation period of 10 months and give live birth to only one pup at a time. The pup, she explained, is only weaned for two weeks before going out on its own. Mr. Bogart also noted seals are long-lived animals, often living up to 30 or 40 years.
Comparing this trip to others in the past, Mr. Bogart told his fellow passengers, “I think you got a really good look.” Along with the dozens of seals, onlookers could see a variety of winter waterfowl, including the common eider and the long-tailed duck. On Cuttyhunk, birders also spotted red-breasted mergansers and bufflehead ducks.
After the vessel arrived at Cuttyhunk Island, the trip participants trekked out for a brief island tour, which included views of Buzzards Bay, the Elizabethan Islands and the Atlantic Ocean from the island’s highest point, the lookout tower. After another brief jaunt, they also had a tremendous view of the Westend Pond. From the outlook far above Westend Pond, the participants could also see the Bartholomew Gosnold Monument, and Sow and Pigs Reef, famous for being where the whaling ship Wanderer was wrecked in 1924.
The Lloyd Center usually hosts two seal watch trips per year; the next should be coming up in April. Call (508) 990-0505 or visit www.lloydcenter.org for more information on upcoming field trips.
All photos taken by Daniel King