Seals belong to the group of mammals called Pinnipeds (from
Latin: pinna which
means "feather" "wing" or "fin"
+ ped, derived
from pedis meaning "foot").
Within the pinnipeds there 3 groups, the Phocids or true
seals (also called "hair" or "earless" seals), the Otariids
(also called eared seals) which include fur seals and sea
lions, and the Walrus (Odobenids). Pinnipeds are
thought to have evolved from carnivorous ancestors, probably
the Ursids (bears) about 25 million years ago.
All seals have torpedo-like body shapes that enable them to
swim swiftly through the water. Seals inhabiting icy regions
have long sharp claws which dig into the ice to help them
climb out of the water.
Seal, like other marine mammals, are adapted to stay warm by
having blubber, fur or hair, and an effective
counter-current heat exchange system.
While seals are marine mammals, they are also
tied to the land/ice
for two things, birthing and resting. Seals regularly leave
the water on to land, or structures in order to rest and
socialize in a behavior know as
hauling-out, if they are undisturbed, seals will eventually
sleep and like us, shut down both sides of their brains.
Seals can also rest in water, but need some level on
consciousness, and like whales and dolphins they shut down
half of their brains at a time.
TRUE SEALS (Phocidae)
All seals native to Long Island are phocid seals!
True seals include all of the five species found on Long
Island in recent years: harbor,
and ringed seals. True seals have no external ear
flap. Instead, they have a small flap of skin that closes
over the ear opening when they dive. Their front flippers
are short and haired and equipped with large claws, while
the hind flippers are webbed and directed backward. The rear
flippers propel the seal through the water by side to side
sculling. On land these seals crawl along clumsily by
humping the body like an inchworm, but they are swift and
agile in the water, often covering long distances during
migration and in search of prey. Phocid seals are generally
deeper divers than the Otariids or the Odobenids.
Seals have been recorded swimming at over 12 knots (more
than 15 miles an hour), and local fishermen have reported
seeing seals over 70 miles off long Island's shores.
Harbor seals are our most common seal, making up about 95 %
of Long Island’s seals. Grey seals are next, at 4%, and the
arctic seals (harp, hooded, and ringed) make up the other
While there are about 30 seal haul-out sites known for Long
Island, CRESLI and Dr. A. Kopelman have been compiling a
catalog of harbor seals that utilize the haul out site at
Cupsogue beach (near Moriches Inlet) for the past 12 years.
As of September 2017, the Cupsogue harbor seal catalog
contains 179 seals that are identifiable based upon pelage
marking patterns. Several of these seals have returned every
year since 2006, other have returned less frequently but
still return to use that site. The catalog is part of an
on-going long term study of site fidelity and population
dynamics. Sample photos of identified and named harbor seals can
be seen at
Seals are protected by the MMPA (Marine Mammal Protection
Act) against being killed or harassed without a permit. The
MMPA defines harassment as anything that caused an abrupt
change in behavior of a marine mammal.
Harassment can cause significant stress to seals and
should be avoided at all times. Many of the harbor seals on
Long Island are pregnant and like others, resting is
important and should not be disturbed.
Like photographing other wildlife, folks, please
“tread-lightly” around seals. Never feed them, never get in
the water with them, and try to avoid disturbing them. If
you are at or near a haulout site, please be careful, stay
low or behind fences, stay hidden, and move slowly. If there
are many seals hauled-out, they will most likely be more at
ease, but when just a few are hauled-out, they are easily
flushed from the haul-out site.
If you see that seals are all of a sudden looking right at
you, or when one or two leave the haul-out to check you out,
it’s your signal to hide or leave the site until they settle
If the seals are flushed from a haul-out, PLEASE leave the
area and allow them to recover.
If you see a vessel or aircraft harassing the seals, please
take photographs or videos and contact NYS DEC Police, or
NOAA Fisheries, or Dr. Artie Kopelman (email@example.com)
and he will let you know whom to contact.
Let’s enjoy our marine mammal companions and let’s make sure
that they can exist without problems.
EARED SEALS (Otariidae)
Not native to Long Island
Sea lions and fur seals are quite different from true seals. Their long
flexible front flippers and versatile hind flippers enable these mammals to
actually run on land and their long agile necks give them the ability to
catch objects on their nose as seen in aquariums. The fore flippers propel
the animal through the water. The males and females of most true seals are
close to the same size, whereas male sea lions and fur seals are often much
larger than the females.
Not native to Long Island
There are two subspecies of walruses: Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus
(Atlantic) and Odobenus rosmarus divergens (Pacific). Odobenus
from the Greek "tooth walker," probably refers to the walruses' method of
pulling themselves up onto the ice using their tusks. Today, Atlantic walruses
inhabit the coastal waters of Canada and Greenland. They had extended as
far south as Cape Cod, but were extirpated by hunters by 1800. Walruses
primarily feed on mollusks but may take other benthic (bottom dwelling)
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