Wellfleet Harbor Seals: “Thanks for All the Fish!”

Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina) in Wellfleet

The Turtle Journal team ventured to Wellfleet Harbor on Sunday, October 26th, to celebrate one of the last perfect days of autumn.  Banks of wispy fog floated like ghostly sheets across the islands of Wellfleet Bay, while the harbor baked in glaring sun under azure skies.  We watched as Great Island vanished into whiteness, then reappeared in stunning clarity.  Temperatures rose into the mid-60s in sunshine and then dipped instantly into the 40s when drenched in icy fog.  On a brief visit to Lieutenant Island as we left for home, we watched fiddler crabs so affected by plunging temperatures that they couldn’t keep their balance and tumbled around like circus clowns.  (Watch for a posting of this phenomenon soon.)

Inner Wellfleet Harbor East of Shirttail Point Pier

The day showed Wellfleet Harbor at its exquisite best … not just for mere humans, but for sealife that calls the Outer Cape home, too.  As we arrived the tide was dropping quickly from mid to low.  Streams of small fish such as sand eels flooded the inner harbor among the floating small boat docks.  The harbor was filled with seagulls everywhere.  Mostly they rested on pilings, on boats, on docks, on water, barely moving a muscle as they warmed in the sunshine.  Between these long stretches of laziness they would screech into action whenever a cormorant snagged a fish.  They lunged at the lucky cormorant, squealing, “Mine, mine, mine,” as depicted in Finding Nemo

Two Harbor Seals Swim Among the Floating Docks

Watching the ebb and flow of the seagulls, we noticed that not all cormorants were cormorants.  Seals!  We were shocked to find three harbor seals fishing along the docks.  They, too, would sprint after schools of fish, scoff down as many as they could consume in one spurt of activity, then retire to the rocky seawall or the sloping salt marsh banks to bask for a few minutes … before resuming the hunt.

NEVER disturb a marine mammal.  Seals have both excellent eyesight and hearing.  Be respectful and observe marine mammals from a distance, so as not to interfere.  Use a telephoto lens for photography and keep quiet.  If you find an injured marine mammal in the Cape Cod area, call the 24/7 stranding hotline at 508-743-9548.  Do not approach the animal without appropriate authorization.  If you have trouble reaching someone, you can can always call the Turtle Journal 24/7 hotline at 508-274-5108.

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Harbor Seals Fishing, Playing and Basking in Wellfleet Harbor

Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) are small marine mammals mostly in the 3 to 4 foot range.  They love fish, including sand eels (sand lances), herring, flounder, rock fish, but they’ll settle for squid or crustaceans or mollusks.  They love to eat, and eat, and eat.  Adult seals consume 5% to 6% of their body weight each and every day.  So, when seals find a plentiful source of delicious fish, they’ll stick around.  We saw these same seals the next day, Monday, waiting for the tide to drop low enough to simplify the hunt.

Harbor Seal Hauling Out on the Rocky Seawall

Predators of harbor seals include sharks.  (You don’t think that blue shark, see Yikes! 11-Foot Blue Shark in Wellfleet Bay, could have been after these cute critters, do you?)  As pups they are preyed upon by coyotes, foxes and large birds.  Harbor seals favor estuarine shallows, including sand bars, rock jetties, rocky reefs and mud flats.  Locally, we expect to find them across Wellfleet Bay at Jeremy Point and along Monomoy Island in Chatham.

They like to haul out to rest, to bask, to mate, to nurse, to molt and to digest.  Our three critters picked options 1, 2 and 6 (rest, bask and digest).  But one of our seals had an additional reason to haul out, and not a good one.

Harbor Seals in Busy Boating Area

While the inner harbor seems idyllic for these small mammals, the amount of boat engine traffic is high at this time of year as owners go out for their final cruise around the bay and motor over to the haul-out ramp to remove their boats for the winter.  One of the seals, the smallest one, showed a propeller gash on its back, very raw and quite fresh. 

Small Harbor Seal with Injury from Propeller Strike

This seal fished and swam with the others, but appeared to tire more quickly and hauled out more frequently.  The Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary was informed of the injured animal and they reported that the Cape Cod Mammal Stranding Network had been informed of its injury.  When we came back to Wellfleet Harbor on Monday, we saw the two larger, healthy seals swimming around and waiting for the tide to drop, but we did not detect the smaller, injured animal.  Admittedly, we did not stay long enough on the second day for a comprehensive and definitive search.

We did locate a beached ocean sunfish (Mola mola), perhaps 3.5 to 4 feet in diameter at the tip of Shirttail Point.  (Watch for a future posting.)

Seagull with Stolen Fish

Not only the seals got their fill of fish.  Cormorants fished along side the seals and caught their share.  And seagulls hung around the edges to steal some portion of the catch.  Since we spotted not a single thin seagulls, the Turtle Team assesses that they’re doing just fine, thank you. 

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Well-Fed Seagulls in Wellfleet Harbor

All in all, a marvelous adventure to Wellfleet Harbor. Driving away from the pier at Shirttail Point, we could swear that we heard the seagulls shrieking and the seals barking, “So long and thanks for all the fish.”  We waved, “You’re most welcome.”

3 Responses to “Wellfleet Harbor Seals: “Thanks for All the Fish!””

  1. [...] An exotic ocean sunfish stranded at the end of Shirttail Point in Wellfleet Harbor.  And harbor seals seem to have moved in for the fall [...]

  2. alex says:

    Add to my Bookmarks :)

  3. [...] docks, under which harbor seals played and foraged a few months earlier (see Wellfleet Harbor Seals: “Thanks for All the Fish!”), have been removed for winter protection, but signs still beckon “boat owners and crew [...]