Harbor seals off the coast of Brant Rock.

It’s almost winter, and the harbor seals are back. If you’re lucky, on a mild day at low tide, you may find them sunning themselves on the rocks along the coast.

These lumbering, wide-eyed creatures show up on the South Shore around this time every year. Harbors seals spend much of their time fishing the deeper waters of the North Atlantic, in search of herring, flounder, and just about any other fish or crustacean they can find. But each day at low tide, especially when the sun is shining, they haul themselves out of the water to rest on the rocks along the shore.

For years I’d heard about the harbor seals. Friends had shared stories of watching them through binoculars, photographing them, even kayaking out to play with them. I knew where to look for them, but my timing was always off. The day would not be sunny enough, or I’d get down to the water too long after low tide.

Last winter I was determined to at least catch a glimpse. For a few weeks in February, on sunny days when low tide occurred sometime between 9:00 am and 2:00, I’d go to Brant Rock to search for them.

There are several sites in Brant Rock where harbor seals are commonly found. From just south of the jetty on down to Blackman’s Point, the coast is littered with large rocks that become exposed to the elements when the tide goes out.

My first stop each day was the parking area across from what used to be the Fairview Inn. Often other seal-seekers would join me. Strangers united for a common purpose, we would peer down expectantly from the cliff, scanning the foreground for anything whitish or gray that moved.

The glint of the wet rocks and the little white-capped waves that formed around them were often enough to fool us. Movements detected from the corner of the eye that we hoped would herald the arrival of a seal were never anything more than reflections in the changing light. We’d see plenty of gulls, but not much else. If we stared long enough, even the droppings that the gulls left behind would take on seal-like qualities.

Harbor seals, phoca vitulina, are the smallest seals found in our region. Males grow to six feet in length, and can weigh up to 550 lbs. Females are generally a foot shorter, and weigh much less. They range in color from dark gray to dull yellow. With a short muzzle, v-shaped nostrils, and large eyes, they often appear to be smiling.

Harbor seals live predominantly in coastal waters — harbors, bays, estuaries and rivers — but can sometimes be seen on islands, mudbanks, rocky shores and even ice. Their habitat stretches from the Arctic all the way down to Florida, most commonly between Greenland and Maine. Here, we are fortunate to have them among us from late November to early spring.

Adult harbor seals are active during high tide, but at low tide, especially in warm weather, they come out of the water to rest. Gathering in large groups on rocks, ledges, or manmade floats, they crowd together without touching. Creatures of habit, they may return to the same rocks day after day.

The word in Brant Rock was that the seals had been congregating on the northern side of Blackman’s Point, my next stop after the Fairview. Even at low tide, there is very little sand on this narrow jut of land, just row upon row of rocks. I’d hop from boulder to boulder, all the way around the point to the narrow channel where the fishing boats enter Green Harbor. Again, plenty of birds, waves, and guano to fool the eyes, but no seals. It was always windy there, and cold. There was plenty else to see — even in winter the ocean is alive with color — but I always left somewhat disappointed.

One sunny day, I arrived at Blackman’s Point a full hour before low tide. By then, I’d lost some of my initial seal-seeking drive. I didn’t even bother to get out of my car; I just rolled down the window and gazed through my binoculars at what I expected would be the same unremarkable rocks. I saw gray instead . . . and white . . . and it was moving! Finally I’d caught up with them. I saw two adults, and then two more, and at least three pups.

I wanted to run down across the beach, and out as far as I could among the rocks, to get as close as I could, as fast as I could, and then plunk down and watch them. But seals are shy, and a friend had cautioned me to move slowly, warning that if even one of them was spooked, the entire group would disappear into the water. So instead I crept from rock to rock, as stealthily as possible.

It didn’t take long for them to notice me. I don’t know how good a harbor seal’s vision is, but it seemed that they were staring right at me. I couldn’t tell if they were bemused or frightened, and I hoped that my bumbling figure, stumbling among the rocks — camera in one hand, binoculars in the other — would not be perceived as a threat.

Because they move quite slowly on land, harbor seals stay close to the water; when they feel threatened, they’re only a hop and a slide away from safety. If one seal becomes alarmed — by a human with shiny objects in each hand heading straight for it, for example — it will head right to the water. Usually the others will follow. Once safe, they don’t flee, but instead stare steadily at the source of the threat, bobbing at the water’s surface.

I could tell the seals were alarmed by my approach, but still 100 feet away, I figured if I stayed still, they’d forget about me. I found a place to sit down, and spent a few precious minutes watching them laze in the sun. But they knew I was there, and they didn’t like it. I observed through my binoculars as they snorted at me, growled, even barked. Then one by one, they shimmied head first off of their rocks into the water. Bobbing in place, they continued to stare. I realized I had outstepped my bounds with them, and began my retreat.

There’s a fine line between observing other creatures and disturbing them. Harbor seals are fun to watch and I encourage you to seek them out this winter. But don’t try to get too close. You’ll see plenty through even the most basic pair of binoculars.

Harbor seals can most often be seen on sunny days at low tide, on rocky outcroppings along the coast. They have been known to frequent the aforementioned sites in Brant Rock, as well as Duxbury’s Gurnet, and The Glades in Scituate. When rocks are not available to them, they sometimes seek out manmade floats. A prime viewing site for this sort of thing is on the North River, either from Damon’s Point in Marshfield, or Mass. Audubon’s observation deck just downstream of the Route 3A bridge.

by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
November 1999

Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.