Wednesday, March 2, 2016

NY Seals

"Turecamo, Turecamo . . .hey captain, mind if I cut in front of you? We're just anchoring in Gravesend Bay. Or, you want me to wait, let you pass?"

We were in the lower harbor, directly across from Gravesend. One barge captain was talking to another, presumably outbound to inbound. The first captain wanted to know if he had time to pass in front of the incoming vessel and drop anchor. The captains worked it out - it turns out the other was heading in to the Bay Ridge anchorage, so they just altered courses to get closer to the eastern side of the channel.

Last weekend I accomplished a goal I've had for a few years now - to get out to Swinburne Island and see the seals there in winter. I do feel like I cheated a bit because I cartopped out there instead of paddling from Manhattan.

Except, wait a minute, hold on a tic - I have been out here before. Only this time, we spent more time on site, definitely saw some seals, and there was no hypoglycemia. Hurray!

I cartopped out from Inwood, along with friends from the Inwood Canoe Club in a separate car. The three of us drove down the West Side Highway, through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, down the BQE, and then across the big bridge at the narrows, and in short order we were at the north end of the boardwalk at the beach.

We were fortunate in the conditions for the day. Despite being the last weekend of February, the water was 40 F, air about the same, and winds were manageable at 8-10 knots from onshore. We were launching at about slack tide, and would have just a little current against us on the way back.

Our aim was Hoffman and Swinburne Islands. These are two manmade islands just off the coast of Staten Island, about a mile (two for Swinburne) south of the Verrazano Bridge and about a mile offshore, and west of the Ambrose Channel. These islands have their own fascinating history, better documented by others elsewhere, but basically were used as quarantine and military facilities until being abandoned.

Hoffman Island.

Unlike several other such islands in NYC though, they're managed by Gateway Recreation Area, a National Park that encompasses Sandy Hook, Bennet Field, and Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island. In fact, I'd gotten a good tip on where to launch from Ranger John D, whom I met last Fall at Bennet Field's welcome center when we went camping there.

Ranger John was right: those seals are hard to photograph!

A glimpse.

We paddled out, about forty minutes, over some mild waves. The wind was a bit stiffer than predicted but not unmanageable. We took in the view. Even if we didn't see seals, we saw the lower harbor, including Coney Island in the distance, a lighthouse, and Manhattan far to the north.

Eventually, I got some better shots. I had to take a pretty big risk for these. I'd put my camera in its waterproof housing at the beach, and I think they moisture captured fogged up the lens internally. At a certain point, I took my plucky little Powershot out and held it with three fingers, cupping my other hand under it, and stowing it in the Gore-Tex sleeve of my drysuit in transit. It was hair-raising, but it got better shots than if the foggy-witch of the sea had had her way.

The seals.

When we arrived, they scattered, but would show up behind each other. "There's one right behind you," we said repeatedly. In one view I counted five, and then two or three to my right. We floated along, pushed only by the wind and minimal current, and they took us in. One of them, larger than the rest, seemed to keep closer, ready to do something if we got suspicious.

We waited and watched.

The Narrows and Manhattan in background.

One our way back, a couple of them followed us. We were a good two miles out at least, and they followed us till we were just north of Hoffman Island - nearly a mile north of where we'd seen them of Swinburne. Satisfied that we weren't predators, they seemed genuinely curious about these 17-foot long creatures that swam only on the surface, with flippers in their midsection.

The seals look back.

Well, it was a bonnie day.

Sun glistening.

Of course when we landed, obligatory group photos ensued. Watch the container ship.

And maybe ignore the beachcomber !

This was a fun trip, one I hope to do again. Even in summer, sans seals, it is a fun location, with low, choppy waves, views of endless sea, and just enough nearby navigation markers to put fun exercises nearby.

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