- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2016

MANASQUAN, N.J. (AP) - During the winter, another kind of tourist hits Jersey Shore beaches and river docks.

Four-flipper tourists- seals -start to arrive when the ocean water temperature drops below 45 degrees, Dauntless party fishing boat captain Willie Egerter observes. They come right into Manasquan River and even snatch fish that fall overboard when commercial fishermen off-load their catch at the Fisherman’s Cooperative Dock in Point Pleasant Beach.

“I see seals every year in the water off Manasquan, Point Pleasant Beach or Lavallette,” Egerter told the Asbury Park Press (https://on.app.com/1MMG6gv ). “They look like a dog swimming because you just see their heads.”

He added: “They’re not very big. I think the biggest is around 3 feet. We had four or five last year just sitting on a floating dock. They’d sit there until the birds bothered them and then they’d go back in the water.”

Because of the unseasonable warmth this year, marine experts say seals have been slow to head south.

“It’s just getting started. We don’t have much population to talk about,” said Bob Schoelkopf, founder and executive director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine.

One of the first this season popped up in Sea Isle City in December. It was a sick harbor seal that died while the Center was treating it for lung worms.

“It’s up in the state lab in Ewing now. We don’t know what happened. It was eating well and looked like it was recovering and then it stared hemorrhaging,” Schoelkopf said.

Habor seals are the most common in New Jersey and are less migratory. On the East Coast, they are found from the Canadian Arctic to New York and occasionally as far south as the Carolinas, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

More migratory are harp and gray seals. They spend more time in the Canadian and Arctic climates but, in recent years, the number of harp sightings from January to May has increased from Maine to New Jersey, NOAA reports.

Schoelkopf can’t predict how many seals will arrive this winter. Some years he’s counted almost 200. Others he has seen as a few as eight.

They usually depart in spring, although last year two gray seals remained in Tuckahoe River all summer, he said.

Many people find pinnipeds- the scientific name for seals -adorable, but some go a little overboard with their affection. Schoelkopf said it’s best to give these marine mammals their space, federal law even requires it under the Marine Mammals Protection Act.

“I once had a lady grab a young gray seal by the flipper and try to drag it back into the ocean. She thought it was in trouble. It turned around and bit her,” said Schoelkopf.

The seal and the woman survived the misunderstanding.

Schoelkopf has made a career of rescuing marine mammals and gets countless calls from concerned people when they see a seal on the beach. He said people often think they are in distress and try to push them back in the water or feed them.

“Don’t touch them. Seals on the beach are not uncommon. They come up to dry off and warm up after fishing,” said Schoelkopf. “They’re expert fishermen.”

Seals can get too comfortable around people and in some cases they have to be taken out of the wild.

Last year, a female gray seal was moved to the Detroit Zoo because she was lying in four-wheel tire tracks in the sand and being petted by people on the beach. The zoo named her Jersey.

“That seal came up onto the beach at Island Beach State Park and had a fish hook in its face. After we cut the hook loose and let her go she kept coming up onto the beach,” said Schoelkopf.

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Information from: Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, https://www.app.com


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