Jan 21, 2011

Seals, Snow, and Bigelow's - 1/15/2011 Jones Beach

They made us sweat this time, they did.

Once or twice every year for the last couple of years, Tony and Walter (aka "Pinky and the Brain", aaka "Co-Chairs of the Sebago Cruising Committee") have organized midwinter sealwatching paddles at Jones Beach.

It's one of my favorite winter trips. In the summertime, Jones Beach may be a pure people's playground, but in the wintertime, the maze of marshy islands inside the inlet becomes almost as popular a playground for our phocine friends.

The first time I joined the Cruising Committee on this trip in 2009, I actually didn't believe it. Tony and Walter were billing the trip as a sealwatching paddle - but in the NY Harbor and Jamaica Bay area, a seal sighting was a special treat. I took the name as a bit of optimism on our trip leaders' part and made elaborate mental preparations to not be too dissappointed if we didn't see any. Wildlife can't be expected to appear on cue, it shaped up to be a great group of people (of course Sebago trips all tend to have that happen), it looked like a lovely area to paddle, there'd surely be some lovely ducks and geese to see and hey, it was supposed to snow, I love paddling in the snow, so even if the seals didn't appear on cue, hey, it would be a fantastic day.

The first seal appeared off the fishing docks before we'd even launched, and once we were on the water, they were everywhere.

They were following us.

They were watching us.

At one point we stopped paddling and just gawked because we were completely surrounded by a circle of seals. At another point, a seal popped up right in our midst - missed the shot by that much, the biggest ripple marks where the seal had been a split-second earlier.

Second year, it wasn't quite as easy to see them. There was a brisk breeze blowing, and it's a lot harder to spot those little round heads when it's choppy. We didn't see them quite as quickly, and a couple of guys who were landing just as we were launching said that they hadn't seen any, so once again, I began to tell myself the whole beautiful spot/lovely ducks/nice people/seals would be the sprinkles on the sundae story...

Of course, they were out there again, and then for the sundae-sprinkles on top of the sundae-sprinkles on the sundae, I jokingly asked ace birder Mary to find us a snowy owl, and guess what - she did! Incredible.

There was a 3rd trip that I missed. I think that was the one where the term "hundreds" came into use. The crew that did that one came back with a story of not seeing many seals and thinking it was going to be a so-so sealwatching day - until they rounded a bend back in the marshes and found themselves smack dab in front of a beach where a huge herd of seals was hauled out.

Unfortunately this resulted in an instant departure of every seal there - seals can get hypothermia too, and their sunbathing time is key to their health; they are very skittish while hauled out so the idea is NOT to suddenly appear right on top of them - in this case the humans and seals were equally surprised, there was nothing to be done but apparently the exodus was quite spectacular.

By my records, then, last Saturday was the 4th Annual-Plus Sebago Jones Beach Seal Paddle.

It was a cold and snowy, slightly blowy day,

but we had a very nice turnout, including a few paddlers with a little less winter experience who were nevertheless drawn by the prospect of seals, and even a very nice prospective member who'd found out about the club, came to the Frostbite potluck to meet people and decided she was interested in joining us for this trip.

L to R - Almost a group shot by Mary Ann (thanks Mary Ann!): Commodore Tony, Susan, Dotty, Walter, Mary Ann, TQ and me - missing: Martha, hiding behind Susan (bummer!): Danica (I hope I spelled that right!)

Jones Beach is actually a great introductory winter trip. It's very protected and quiet inside the inlet, you're never really too far from land, and it's all about watching the seals, there's no particular distance that has to be done for the trip to be a raging success.

They'd all heard so much about this trip, and we launched with confident promises of wonders to come...

But as I said at the beginning of this post -- the seals let us sweat this time.

I don't know if they heard that we were taking them for granted and wanted to teach us a lesson, or maybe they were down at the inlet having lunch, but we paddled for a VERY long time without seeing any.

And once again I found myself working through the litany of ways in which a seal-free seal paddle would be OK - this time, with others joining in.

Mary Ann, God bless her, started to point out the birds. A loon, a longtailed duck, how lovely!

Someone else commented on how beautiful the marsh islands were and what a nice place this was to paddle as we paddled on past the second seal-free inlet.

And once again it was a really great group. Sebago paddles are like that. Oh, did I say that already? Well, it bears repeating. They just are.

And then, finally, just at the other end of the inlet, the first one was spotted. We stopped, we drifted, we gawked, we paddled backwards, and those little round heads kept popping up here and there. It was still nothing like the density we sometimes see there (I actually didn't end up taking any pictures on the water because I didn't see any opportunities for shots that were going to be any better than pictures I'd taken on other paddles with seals, plus I was a little more in trip-leader mode than I had been in the past, which makes me lay off the camera a bit) but all in all, it was another good Jones Beach seal paddle. I don't think the first-timers were quite as blown away as I was on my first trip, but I think everybody was happy.

And then -- how do you make happy paddlers even happier?

Oh. My. Gosh. BIGELOW'S!

Doing wonderfully, deliciously unhealthy things to seafood in Rockville Center since 1939. Faaaaaabulous!Walter introduced this to the Seal Paddle last year. I begged to go back this year.

Guess what, I didn't have to beg too hard!

I once again chose the Ipswich belly clams with a cold Harpoon IPA for there...

and a quart of the best New England clam chowder I've ever had anywhere (except maybe TQ's homemade) to go. And Danica got a slice of key lime pie and a bunch of forks, and I was SO happy - I LOVE key lime pie, I was way too full of clams to have a whole dessert to myself but a couple of bites of creamy key lime yumminess to top of the meal? Wonderful.

Oh, gosh, and that reminds me, there's a sailing committee scheduling meeting on Saturday. I wonder if I could hunt down a Steve's Key Lime Pie somewhere in Manhattan tomorrow?

BTW - interested in going to see the seals at Jones Beach for yourself? You don't need a kayak or a drysuit, just warm clothing, some good walking shoes, and maybe a thermos of something hot (ok, and a car would probably help). The Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center offers guided seal walks all winter. Click here for schedule and details.


John Edward Harris said...

I was beginning to wonder if the trip actually happened. I guess the seals are STILL wondering.

Walter L said...

Great trip report Bonnie. You write them the best! Maybe we need to do one in February this year,( I need another excuse to go to Bigello's) I love that the chart still shows a Hotel on Deep Meadow Marsh. I wonder when that closed?