A tour of Chatham's seals is one of the best family adventures on the Cape or anywhere. As your boat heads out to the tip of North Monomoy you can see little black specks dotting the water. They disappear just as soon as they appear. As you approach these black dots grow larger and larger.
They look at you, dip their heads down into the water, swim under your boat and re-emerge on the other side. Poking their heads up to the surface, they check you out and then give a loud "bark," and quickly dive under again. You can see their large, black silhouettes from many yards away gracefully swimming under the surface.
As your boat approaches Chatham's Monomoy Islands,you can see over a hundred of these huge creatures, which can weigh in at 1500 pounds, basking in the sun on the shoals. They lie with their heads and tails raised, constantly flapping their flippers as they sound off -- sometimes ducking into the water to take a swim in the cold waters off of Monomoy.
You watch them playing among themselves and with you, eyeing you and then dunking under -- periodically giving you a loud "bark." It's quite a sight to see - finding the seals so playful and noisy up close!
What does it sound like when hundreds of seals howl in unison? You find out as you discover yourself literally in the midst of hundreds of seals, listening to their seal symphony. In groups of three and four, they pop their shiny heads up to the right of you. Two more sightings follow to your left.
Up and down they come and go. They are much more social than you expect as they gambol all around you. They are endlessly fascinating and seem to be saying you are too!
Chatham's appeal to seals is something most humans would recognize: Both find it a great spot for taking revitalizing swims, snoozing on the beach, or just wolfing down lots of seafood. And, there's so much good food swimming around the Monomoys. The only difference is that the seals like the water cold - really cold.
Monomoy is the largest haul-out site of grey seals on the Eastern Seaboard. Only seals could love the icy, dead-of-winter waters off Chatham. And love it they do. Thousands of the whiskered critters swim south out of the Gulf of Maine to while away the coldest months of the year in the comparatively tropical Monomoys.
Their haul-out home serves as a base for operations, and their prime operation is eating. Seals are carnivores and feed on a diet consisting of fish (sand eels, herring, mackerel, flounder, bluefish and skate), shrimp, squid and other animals they can chase out of the water and swallow whole.
Seals have very sensitive whiskers and use them to hunt for shellfish along the ocean floor. The best time to see the seals around Monomoy is within 2 hours of low tide on a sunny midday afternoon. Because seals cannot move well on land, during high tide they position themselves over submerged jetties. When the tide goes out they are left exposed, sitting on the jetty basking in the sun. If left undisturbed, they will stay on the rocks until the tide comes in again.
If conditions are right, you can see approximately 1,500 to 2,000 grey seals in the afternoons at the Monomoy Islands. Because their rear flippers cannot anchor well on the shore, they have to wiggle their bellies in order to move on sand.
In water, seals use their front flippers to steer and their back flippers to easily paddle their way through water.
Grey seals are brown or silver with black splotches and are much larger than harbor seals, ranging from 7 to 8 feet long. The males average 400 pounds and females 700 pounds.
They have an elongated head and have a Roman nose profile. Adult harbor seals are spotted with contrasting gray, brown or black spots. They are 5 to 6 feet long and weigh between 150 and 200 pounds. Harbor seals also have a round head.
500 or so Harbor seals hang out around the beaches near the Chatham Fish Pier where they go looking for handouts. Their big food source is sand lances, or sand eels, and when the eels headed up to the Chatham Fish Pier, the seals moved followed.
When the fishing boats unload at the end of the day the seals gather underneath the boats for whatever scraps wash over. Occasionally, they'll get a whole fish and a seagull will swoop out of the sky and try to steal it before the seal submerges.
I often take a book and chair to the small dock off the Fish Pier in the late afternoon. Harbor seals often surface a few feet away from me. While they are normally shy,and approaching them is not recommended, they will sometimes voluntarily approach within a few feet. Chatham's seals have become quite sociable.
Seals were sought for more than a century by bounty hunters and fisherman who mistakenly believed the marine mammals were depleting fishing stocks. They are now making a comeback. Bounty hunting was banned in Massachusetts in 1962, and marine mammals are now protected by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. Since then, seal populations have grown along the East Coast.