Rare summer sighting: Gray seal — ‘a pretty big boy’ — spotted in Long Island Sound

For the past few weeks, Greg Bilionis said he has had a companion while fishing around Smith Reef in Long Island Sound.

Bilionis, a Stamford resident, has spotted what he said appears to be the same large seal three times. The first time, Bilionis was out on the water when he saw what he thought was a rock or a lobster trap — but then it moved. It was the seal’s head.

The second time he saw the animal, it appeared to be “standing” in about 5 feet of water with its head above the surface, Bilionis said. He most recently saw it Wednesday after about 6 a.m. On that occasion, he got a full view of the seal as it lay out on a rock.

“I've seen seals in years past but much smaller, and he just seems to be a pretty big boy,” Bilionis said, adding that the seal splashed into the water soon after he arrived.

“I did manage to get some fish there,” Bilionis said. “With him there, I thought he would scare all the fish away, but apparently not.”

The animal appears to be a male gray seal, said Dave Sigworth, the associate director of communications for the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk, whose staff took a look at a couple pictures of the seal taken by Bilionis.

“First of all, they're larger than females and larger than harbor seals, and then the males sort of have almost like a horse-shaped face — their snout is longer and more pronounced than the females,” Sigworth said. The Smith Reef seal appeared to be “hauling out” on the rock to rest during low tide, he said.

Seals migrate to Long Island Sound in the late fall and then go back north to the waters off Massachusetts and Maine in the spring, ahead of the breeding and pupping season, Sigworth said. The Maritime Aquarium operates “Seal-Spotting” cruises in the winter.

A seal sighting in Long Island Sound during the summer is “rare but should not be unexpected,” Sigworth said. “I think there is a small year-round population out there.”

Seal populations have grown and their range has expanded since the enactment of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, he said. The law generally prohibits the harassment or killing of marine mammals like whales and seals.

Sigworth said that anyone who encounters the seal should keep their distance, snap a picture and otherwise leave the animal alone.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tells people to stay at least 50 yards away from seals.

In the winter, the aquarium sometimes receives calls from people saying a seal is on their shoreline property. Again, people should leave the seal alone in such cases, Sigworth said. Seals have sharp teeth, he noted, and carry diseases that can spread to dogs.

Seals aren’t as “gregarious or social” as sea lions, which are found on the West Coast of the United States, Sigworth said. A seal prefers to “have some flipper room” when it isn’t breeding and pupping season, so it searches for an area where it can have its own space and has access to food.

The amount of forage fish in Long Island Sound has increased in recent years, making it an attractive home to seals, Sigworth said. Plus, there aren’t great white sharks in the sound like there are in Cape Cod.

“These are the things that you look for as an animal,” he said. “You look for food and safety and a place to rest.”

Leigh Shemitz, the president of SoundWaters, said the summer seal sighting shows “conservation happening in real time.”

People started seeing seals in Long Island Sound in the early 1990s, about 20 years after the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Shemitz said. Now, it’s common to see them in the winter when out on the water. But, as Sigworth noted, seeing one in the summer is less common.

“It does lead to interesting problems in the future, potentially, like Cape Cod,” Shemitz said.

Since Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, gray seals have “recolonized” the Cape Cod area, contributing to an increase in the number of white sharks, according to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.

“Not to scare people,” Shemitz said. “Will there be more sharks in Long Island Sound waters today? No.”