Some of us may find the winter temperatures around Long Island Sound too cold for comfort, but seals who live in even chillier climes don't agree. Every year harbor seals and gray seals come down from northern waters to winter in the Sound, where open waters guarantee food. Some have come from as far away as the Arctic Circle.
They often can be spotted happily hanging out on the exposed rocks and shoals on and near the Norwalk Islands on Winter Creature Cruises from the Norwalk Maritime Aquarium in Connecticut's Fairfield County.
This unusual winter outing aboard the Aquarium's research vessel Oceanic sails from Norwalk Harbor into the Sound from mid-December through April 1. Marine science educators are on board to point out the seals as well as other life on the water in the colder months, including hardy seabirds such as buffleheads and mergansers. The narrators paint a full picture of what happens in winter on the Sound, who migrates in, who migrates out and who stays put.
The Aquarium is a leading research facility and passengers are invited to help with their cruise's plankton and water-chemistry samplings. Data collected during the cruises is added to the Long Island Sound Biodiversity Project, which is an ongoing census of the Sound's animal species.
When the cruise ends, a close-up look awaits at the Aquarium's permanent harbor seals pool especially during feeding time, 11:45 a.m. and 1:45 and 3:45 p.m. daily. There is plenty more to see inside the Aquarium, including playful river otters, rays, sharks, giant sea turtles and all manner of colorful frogs, as well as the Marine Lab where baby jellyfish and seahorses are being raised. The intertidal Touch Tank offers a real feel for some of Long Island Sound's interesting creatures, a chance to touch critters like a green crab or horseshoe and finding out what the surface of a sea star feels like. Coral Reef Adventure and Born to be Wild are the current exciting nature offerings on the giant I-Max screen.
The 21/2-hour Winter Creature cruises, recommended for ages 8 and older, are timed for low tide when seals are most likely to be seen, though sightings are not guaranteed. Cruises are scheduled for December 17 at 9:30 am, December 18 at 10:30 am, January 15 and 19 at 9 a.m., February 18 at 1 p.m., March 17 at 1:30 pm, March 31 at noon and April 1 at 1 p.m. The Aquarium suggests bringing binoculars and cameras and, since there is limited cabin space, warm clothing is a must. Tickets are $20.50. Advance purchase is strongly recommended; walk-up tickets will be sold only when space is available. Tickets can be ordered by phone during weekday business hours at 203-852-0700, ext. 2206, or online at maritimeaquarium.org
For more information about the cruises and other winter activities in the nearby Fairfield County area, including a free copy of the Fairfield County Getaway Guide, contact the Western Connecticut Visitors Bureau, PO Box 968, Litchfield, CT 06759, (860) 567-4506, or visit their web site at www.visitwesternct.com.