A Rare Winter Tourist Spotted in the James River

February 26th, 2010 by Kim Lenz

A harbor seal suns atop a fallen tree Wednesday off Governor’s Land in the James River. (Photo by Emily Gerdelman)

There’s an unusual visitor who’s been spotted in the Historic Triangle this week –  a visitor whose curiosity led the way to local waters, whose palate is intrigued by the local food and whose needs seem to be very satisfied with the accommodations.

Sounds like the perfect tourist.

It is, except for the part where he – or she – doesn’t spend money. The visitor is a harbor seal, probably a juvenile who came down from New England following food and heeding the call of youthful wanderlust. It was first spotted Wednesday afternoon, sunning itself on a rock jetty in the James River, just off the waterfront Governor’s Land neighborhood in James City County. Residents reported the seal was still around Thursday.

Diane Tulipani, a Ph.D. candidate at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, says it’s not all that rare to see a harbor seal in and near the Chesapeake Bay during winter.

“It’s a special treat, that’s for sure, because they are pretty hard to spot,” says Tulipani, who has been at VIMS for about three years. During that time, she says, a call of a seal spotting further up the bay, like the James River visitor, comes in at least once every winter. Reports have increased, which could mean increased awareness on the public’s part or just more traveling by the seals.

This time of year in New England is getting close to what’s known as the “pupping season,” when harbor seals are born. Tulipani says it’s mostly juvenile harbor seals wandering from their New England roots during this time of year.

“In my opinion, they’re just sort of at loose ends, wandering around because they’re not part of the mating thing quite yet,” she says. The creatures are very curious, she adds, always on the move in the water and looking around. That, plus their steely grey and white bodies that blend with the winter water, is why getting a glimpse of one is so unusual.

Anyone who does see a seal in local waters should keep at least 50 yards away, but also note the location and contact the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Team at 437-6159. Photos, whenever possible, are always a help with identification.

Tulipani says the stranding team helps animals who are in distress, but also keeps track of wayward or wandering travelers.

“The general public is stranding groups’s greatest asset,” says Tulipani. “When the public calls it helps us to better assess whether [spotted animals] are doing their general behavior or in distress.”

Besides keeping a safe distance from harbor seals in local waters, Tulipani recommends taking some photos and enjoying the view of another’s vacation in our backyard.

One Response to A Rare Winter Tourist Spotted in the James River

  1. Anonymous

    February 26, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    I am glad that someone, or should I say something, was sunning itself! How cool, our very own seal.

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