As sightings of marine mammals increase in the winter months, state officials are urging onlookers to resist the temptation to approach these often cute-looking creatures, such as fuzzy seals.
The state’s environmental conservation department cautioned that marine mammals are wild — not stuffed animals — and they should be treated like museum exhibits.
Marine mammal encounters with people increase this time of year along Long Island’s coasts. The DEC urged people to avoid marine mammals — including whales, dolphins, porpoises, and seals — even if the animal appears injured.
“New York’s marine waters provide vital nursery and foraging grounds for whales, dolphins, and seals that migrate across the Atlantic Coast,” DEC commissioner Basil Seggos said. “Observing these animals in the wild can be an exciting and unforgettable experience. However, DEC urges New Yorkers to keep their distance and refrain from attempting to intervene during stranding events.”
The primary reason to stay away from a marine mammal on the beach is to avoid interfering with wildlife. Also, state and federal law protects marine mammals, making it illegal to run up to a stranded seal and pet it like a tourist at a gift shop.
“Stay away at least 150 feet,” said Artie Kopelman, president of the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, which is based in West Sayville.
Kopelman, who works extensively with marine mammals, added that keeping pets such as dogs away from marine mammals is also a must. If a marine animal appears injured, bystanders could call numerous agencies, and trained professionals would arrive to help, Kopelman said.
“If the animal looks injured or is disabled, the best thing for you to do is to call for help,” Kopelman said. “The animal could just be resting. Animals need rest, too.”
Harbor seals are most commonly seen along Long Island’s saltwater coasts and in bays during the winter. The height of the season in New York is typically March through May, but they can be observed as early as November and December.
Seals often lie on rocks and sandbars to rest, socialize, and regulate their body temperature, according to the DEC.
Interfering with their natural resting can cause illness, injury or even death, state officials said. Viewing from a legally safe distance is permitted, they added. The DEC said signs of stress in seals include when they raise their flippers, show their teeth, yawn, and eat sand and rocks.
When contacted about possibly injured marine mammals, agencies work collaboratively to quickly arrive at the location to provide aid.
“Stranded animals will need professional medical care, and the best way to help is to immediately contact the Stranding Hotline (at (631) 369-9829),” Seggos said.
If anyone is observed harassing or endangering marine life, contact the environmental conservation police’s 24-hour hotline at (844) 332-3267.
As for larger marine mammals like whales and dolphins, federal and state law requires people to maintain a safe and legal distance from them on water and land. Violators could face up to one year in jail and/or fines of up to $20,000.
Attempting to help push an animal back toward the water may seem like it’s helping, but it puts the animal and person in danger.
The DEC said entering the water with live distressed animals, and even large carcasses, is extremely hazardous. Unpredictable movement by the animal, the force of the ocean surf, and harsh weather conditions can lead to serious human injury or death.
Most of the time, calling a hotline and remaining at the site is the best way to help, officials said.
“Most of these animals are extremely compromised and an inexperienced person could cause more damage to the animal,” New York Marine Rescue Center program director Maxine Montello said. “We encourage people to help by immediately calling the New York stranding hotline to report all sightings or standings of marine mammals and sea turtles.”