A Nature Cruise on the Pawcatuck

A Nature Cruise on the Pawcatuck

by Chris Cassaday, communications intern

As the trees burn with color and New England greets the cold blow of pre-winter, Rhode Island gets some curious tourists. Aboard Save The Bay’s vessel M/V Elizabeth Morris, I joined 12 other excited nature-lovers on a nature cruise from the Viking Marina in Westerly with the hopes of seeing some traveling seals.

Save The Bay educator Mary Klimasewiski narrates a nature cruise on the Pawcatucket River.
Save The Bay educator Mary Klimasewiski narrates a nature cruise on the Pawcatucket River.

The chilly November afternoon could not have been a more perfect day. The cloudless sky and unimpeded sunshine kept us warm as we journeyed south toward the mouth of the Pawcatuck River. Save The Bay education specialists, Mary Klimasewiski (right) and Sarah Callan (left), began their narration showing where the Pawcatuck River serves as a natural border between Connecticut and Rhode Island. They said that once we reached the mouth of the river, we’d be able to see Long Island, New York far to the southwest.

It didn’t take long for us to spot our first few animals. A few seagulls flocked around the shoreline and a group of mute swan leisurely watched us from afar. Captain Eric spotted a turkey vulture, too far away to see clearly, but exciting nonetheless. Sarah and Mary passed out binoculars to the guests, who all began scanning the river banks for signs of life, and as we approached a rock outcropping, we witnessed our first and only seal.

Seals in Narragansett Bay

Harbor seals and gray seals are the two most common species we see in the Bay during the late fall through early spring months. This one in particular was a healthy, juvenile harbor seal. Though well adapted to cold water, seals migrate here in the winter months following food and avoiding the frigid water temperatures in their usual range. That’s why we only see them in Narragansett Bay during the coldest months of the year. A snowy December afternoon may not make a good beach day for us, but the seals love it!

A harbor seal in the Pawcatuck River
Harbor seals are often seen by nature cruise guests in the “banana pose,” which lets them rest and regulate their body temperature.

This was my first time ever seeing a seal in the wild, and what an experience it was! I shimmied behind the other guests who crowded to one side of the boat to catch a glimpse. The seal perched on a small rock in the middle of the river in the “banana pose”—with its head and back flippers into the air. While it looked like an uncomfortably advanced yoga position to me, harbor seals do this regularly to regulate their body temperature while on land.

After the seal was out of sight, we actively scanned the river, all hoping to be the first to spot something new. Mary and Sarah continued their narration and introduced two very special guests. For the past three years, Save The Bay has partnered with Mystic Aquarium’s Animal Rescue Program and I happened to be on one of three trips with these guests this season.

Mystic Aquarium guests on nature cruise
Mystic Aquarium’s Animal Rescue Program staff Janelle Shuh and Danielle Stone join selected nature cruises in Westerly.

Animal Rescue Program Manager Janelle Schuh (left) and her colleague Danielle Stone (right) answered questions and provided more information on seals and how Mystic’s rehabilitation program operates. The Animal Rescue Program relies on volunteer first responders who can quickly travel to a site and manage a sick or injured animal that may have washed ashore. The first responder will stay in the area until teams from Mystic can arrive on site to safely transfer the animal to the aquarium for treatment. Mystic Aquarium receives upwards of 30 calls a year regarding stranded animals, including sea turtles, dolphins, and even small whales such as belugas in addition to seals. Mystic offers a basic class to all community members interested in participating.

Save The Bay’s seal tours and nature cruises are a fantastic chance for people of all ages to see some incredible animals in the natural habitat. The Pawcatuck is a gorgeous environment filled with life; educational tours ensure that the public knows what Save The Bay is fighting to protect. Tours in Westerly run daily from Dec. 27-31, 2018, with another visit from Mystic Aquarium’s animal rescuers on Dec. 27. Newport tours run most weekends through April 2019, so there are still plenty of opportunities to hop on board one of Save The Bay’s vessels for a chance to see some seals before they travel north for the summer. For tickets and more information, visit: https://www.savebay.org/family-fun/seals/

*Please note:  Be sure to access the Johnson & Wales University Harborside Campus through the main entrance on Harborside Blvd. Your GPS may suggest taking Ernest Street to JWU’s Shipyard Street entrance, but that route requires a key card for entry.  

From Route I-95 North or South, take Exit 18 (Thurbers Avenue). Head downhill on Thurbers Avenue to US Route 1A (Allens Avenue). Turn right onto Allens Ave. Continue southbound on Allens Ave. into Cranston, where Allens Ave. becomes Narragansett Blvd. Turn left onto Harborside Blvd. at the traffic light by the Shell gas station. Follow Harborside Blvd. through the Johnson & Wales Harborside Campus. At the end of Harborside Blvd., turn right onto Save The Bay Drive. Save The Bay Drive becomes a circular, one-way roadway as you approach the Bay Center. Parking is available in four guest lots after you pass the main building. Enter the building through the main entrance.