ATHENS — Local kayaker Derek Brown shared a special moment with a playful seal while paddling on the Hudson River on Monday. Brown, who has been kayaking for a few years now, said he has never come across anything like it before.
“I was just paddling and out of the corner of my eye I saw something following me,” Brown said. “My immediate thought was that it was a beaver, but beavers don’t get this close to me.”
Brown stopped to get a closer look.
“I’ve heard occasionally seals are in the Hudson but what are the odds?” Brown said. “I watched it for a while. It swam here, swam there and did a couple of jumps. It clearly wanted my attention.”
What Brown saw is likely a harbor seal, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Harbor seals are found along the East Coast from Canada to New York and sometimes as far south as the Carolinas, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The seals typically stay within 15 to 31 miles of home, but can sometimes travel 62 to 249 miles.
The seal was very curious, Brown said, and at one point was nipping at the back of his kayak.
“It looked at me from a paddle’s distance away,” Brown said. “If I reached out far enough, which I didn’t even try to, I could have touched it.”
Brown felt a connection with the aquatic creature, he said.
“There were a number of times it would stop and look at me with these big brown eyes,” he said. “The coolest part, that I can still kind of feel, is that I wasn’t just watching it. This seal was watching me watch it. It wanted my attention. That level of empathy was just incredible. It was like a sea dog, this dog from the sea. It wanted attention.”
After paddling around with the creature while it splashed, Brown wanted to show off his newfound friend.
“I wanted to show my husband and my neighbors,” Brown said.
As luck would have it, the seal wanted to tag along.
“It followed me three miles back to my house,” Brown said. “I called ahead and by then my husband was watching and my neighbor was out on the porch.”
Brown, who usually paddles near the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse, said he made a fateful decision Monday to change his normal route.
“If I didn’t make that very random decision, I probably wouldn’t have seen it,” he said.
Brown encountered the “sea dog” beneath the railroad trussel at Stockport Creek.
Now dubbed “the seal whisperer” by his neighbor, Brown said he finds himself looking for seals.
“Anytime I look at the water now I immediately catch myself looking for a seal when probably there’s never going to be a seal there again,” he said.
Greene County Legislator Ed Bloomer, R-Athens, said there was a seal sighting near the lighthouse several years ago.
“I used to be a tour guide at the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse,” he said. “Years ago, within a decade, there was a seal spotted. It does happen occasionally. It’s rare, but it has happened before.”
While not many seals travel this far north, it is not uncommon, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
A seal was reported near the Saugerties Lighthouse in February 2020.
Residents are advised to stay 150 feet away from seals, which are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, according to DEC.
Seal sightings can be reported to DEC’s Flipper Files, a digital survey that helps DEC better understand seal distribution in New York. Animals that appear to be injured or sick should be reported to the New York Stranding Hotline at 631-369-9829.