By Dr. Artie Kopelman

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 to rest and socialize in a behavior know as hauling out. When 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 of 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: HARBORGREYHARPHOODED, 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 1%.
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 December 2016, the CRESLI Cupsogue harbor seal catalog contains 168 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. Samples photos from identified and named 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 down.
  • 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 ( 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.

Want to see them for yourself and learn more?  Take a guided walk with me starting weekends November 18th!

Join CRESLI led walks to observe, count and photograph seals at haul out areas and learn about seal species diversity, ecology, evolution, and status. Students will be involved in collecting seal density, distribution and behavior data.

CRESLI seal walks will take place between November and late April. Please note that weather will play a significant role in affecting the seal walk schedule. Please call CRESLI at (631) 319-6003 for schedule changes and cancellations.

Reservations are required and must be made at

Cost = Suggested donation of $5 per adult and $3 per child under 18

CRESLI seal walks at Cupsogue Beach County Park (at the western end of Dune Road in Westhampton Beach) will depart from area near the fence at the western end of the parking lot. The walks are approximately 1.3 miles round trip and take about 2 hours.  Meeting times are 15 minutes prior to departure.  These walks are suitable for children.

All the photos below and on pages 2 and 3 were taken during the 2017 season. 

More images and video on pages 2 and 3