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The Seal of Otter Pond

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By Claire Walla

It seems there’s a new winter resident living in Sag Harbor Village — and this one has quite a taste for fish.

Anthony and Christine Hagen said they first noticed the harbor seal floating in the water behind their home on Main Street in Sag Harbor two weeks before Christmas.

“We’ve lived here for 30 years and we’ve never seen anything like it,” Anthony exclaimed.

Christine said she initially thought the animal was in distress because it seemed to be swimming in the waters of Upper Sag Harbor Cove and Otter Pond without the company of other seals. But, now that she’s seen the aquatic creature at least three times since then, she has been convinced otherwise.

“Today he looked very happy,” she said on Friday, January 7 of the seal, which is usually spotted around high tide swimming under Otter Pond Bridge. The nearly four-foot long mammal looks like a torpedo zipping into the pond, where the Hagen’s say they believe he (or she) has been foraging for food.

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As the vast majority of Upper Sag Harbor Cover and Otter Pond have frozen over, there are only two relatively sizable, fan-shaped pockets of pond sans ice in which the seal spends its time.

When its head pokes out of the water, “He looks like a little, black bowling ball bobbing around,” said Christine who has christened the seal “Buddy.”

She adds that Buddy travels into Otter Pond to catch fish and then carries them back to the cove behind her house where, at 40 to 50 feet away from the shore, Christine said she has watched the seal rip into lunch, spreading fish blood and silver scales in the water.

According to Rob DiGiovanni, director of the Riverhead Foundation, there have never been reports of a seal in Otter Pond. However, this does not necessarily mean seals have never ventured this far inland.

“It’s not something we think is all that uncommon,” DiGiovanni said. “Historically, people might have seen seals in that area,” but he notes the Riverhead Foundation does not have great records of past sightings.

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DiGiovanni didn’t seem too alarmed that the animal was swimming solo.

“Seals have a social structure that we don’t fully understand,” he explained. Though we tend to see groups of harbor seals hauling out en masse on rock clusters along the coastline, this is not necessarily indicative of the seals’ inherent need to be social, he said. Seals travel in large groups — technically called clubs or pods — because they’ve come to rely on certain areas of the East End for what they need in the winter.

“It’s kind of like if we were all going to a football game,” he explained. “We may not all know each other, but we’re all there for a common purpose.”

For seals, that common purpose is flat rocks and fish. Areas off Montauk Point and Gardiner’s Island are prime “haul-out” spots because they provide a wealth of both. And while access to Otter Pond presents a labyrinth of watery passageways more difficult to navigate than the straight shoot to Montauk Point, DiGiovanni mentioned there’s a small haul-out spot in Sag Harbor from which “Otter Pond is not super far.”

“Although,” he added, “it’s interesting that [the seal] would go under all those bridges.”

Lindsay Rohrbach, who leads seal walks for the South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center (SoFo), said she’s surprised the seal would choose to frequent an area so close to people.

“Seals don’t like a lot of movement,” she said. And the waters by Otter Pond Bridge, which cut through a strip of residences on Main Street, “aren’t quiet.” However, she added, no two seals are created alike. “He may just be an extra adventurous and daring individual.”

Christine Hagen, who lives across the street from the pond, said there are often people fishing at Otter Pond.

“There’s pretty good fishing there,” she added. “And the seal knows that, too.”