This gray seal was caught on camera swimming in the Peconic River on the west end of Grangebel Park Feb. 12. Photo: Joseph Maiorana

A gray seal swimming and sunbathing in the western end of the Peconic has been turning heads downtown over the past week.

The marine mammal was seen swimming in the water on the west side of Grangebel Park last Wednesday.

Yesterday, the seal was spotted sunbathing on a log in the river in the area of George Schmelzer Park on West Main Street.

Seals are not a common occurrence in the freshwaters of the western Peconic River, but they do sometimes venture there from the the eastern parts of the estuary.

“Seal season” in this region is generally January through May, according to the New York Marine Rescue Center, located at the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead. This takes place after seals give birth further north on the Atlantic coast.

The N.Y. Marine Rescue Center has received numerous reports of the seal, including photos and videos, its program director Maxine Montello said.

The seal is an adult gray seal and it is not exhibiting any signs of distress or injury, she said.

“We’ve been monitoring it. It’s got a healthy posture, with its head and hind flippers up and it’s been seen eating fish,” Montello said.

The gray seal yesterday on a log in the river near George Schmelzer Park on West Main Street, exhibiting a healthy “banana” posture. Photo: Peter Blasl

The food is probably what’s keeping the pinniped hanging around downtown.

When a gray seal appears to be scratching its face or opening its mouth wide in what seems to be a yawn (see video below), it is actually sending a warning — showing its long claws and large teeth.

While harbor and harp seals — the other two seals often seen in the Peconic Estuary — look similar, the gray seal is distinguished by its long snout and very large front flippers.

People should not try to touch the seal or feed it.

Feeding (or trying to feed) seals in the wild is actually illegal under federal law — it is harmful because it changes their natural behaviors and makes them less wary of people and boats, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“They learn to associate humans with an easy meal and change their natural hunting practices — for example, they take bait catch directly off fishing gear. Sometimes they fall victim to retaliation (such as shooting) by frustrated boaters and fishermen,” the NOAA website says.

Gray seals — in fact, all marine mammals — are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. They are sometimes called “horseheads” because of their large, curved noses, according to the NOAA.

Adult female gray seals are about 7.5 feet long and weigh about 550 pounds, while males are about 10 feet long and weigh about 880 pounds. Females have silver-gray fur with scattered dark spots, while males have dark gray fur with silver-gray spots. Males also have longer noses than females.

Gray seals are found across the North Atlantic in coastal areas from New York to the Baltic Sea. Their lifespan is 25 to 35 years.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.