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A Happy Haul

A surging seal population takes up residence off Truro

seal population

Courtesy of the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies

The line of hulking creatures along the J-shaped sandbar just off High Head Beach in Truro is at first deceiving: Their round, shiny bodies are reminiscent of large, dark rocks, giving the peninsula the look of Maine’s rugged coast rather than Cape Cod’s sandy shore. But when the wind dies down, the rocks can be heard moaning. Those rocks, it turns out, are gray seals.

“It’s just fascinating to sit and listen,” says Sue Moynihan, chief of interpretation and cultural resources management for the Cape Cod National Seashore. “There are all these vocalizations they are making, and we really don’t know what they mean.” When visitors step closer to the shore, the seals swimming by themselves stop their acrobatics to stare. Their heads are the size of a horse’s, their eyes black.

This is at least the fifth year that seals have congregated off Truro. Jeremy Point off Wellfleet, Chatham Harbor, South Monomoy Island, and Muskeget Island off Nantucket are also home to gray seal haul-outs, but for humans, the Truro gathering spot is probably the least remote, making it a popular place to observe seals in their element.

In the fall of 2007, the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies took notice of “bottling” seals off Head of the Meadow Beach. Around 60 to 70 gray seals appeared to be hanging vertically in the water, something they do when they are resting. Throughout that fall the seals were regularly sighted in the area. The following May, dozens returned to haul out onto the J-bar, recounts Lisa Sette, a biologist with the PCCS. Since then, the seals have returned each year to different haul-outs between Head of the Meadow and High Head beaches from late May until the fall—or whenever a storm obliterates the J-bar.

The sandy haul-out—so-named because seals “haul” themselves out of the water and rest after feeding—is formed by ocean currents. Some years, the Truro site has had a deep-water “trough” surrounding it; this year it’s attached to the beach, making it a peninsula but still offering seals the protection they need from predators that threaten from the land and sea.

“They’re resting,” explains Sette, who has been studying the seals off Truro since 2008. “Some are still molting (shedding their coat and growing a new one), and that is a stressful time for them. If they are wounded, they may haul out to heal as well. It’s basically their way of resting and healing.”

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