Faces of Long Island celebrates the uniqueness of everyday Long Islanders. In their own words, they tell us about their life experiences, challenges and triumphs. Newsday launched this social media journey into the human experience to shine a light on the diverse people of this wonderful place we call home.

‘The Cuyahoga River on fire, pollutants everywhere … I decided I had to do something.’

Arthur Kopelman, West Sayville

“Growing up, I had an interest in marine life, but I didn’t make it a part of my life until well after receiving my PhD in population ecology. My work then was in insect population dynamics, my doctoral work was on a species of wasp; at that time, there were only 12 of us who were working on it and its related species. But as a child, I followed the work of Rachel Carson, author of ‘The Sea Around Us,’ and the work of Jacques Cousteau back when I was a kid, it drew me in. I was reading about oceanography, marine biology, all that stuff.

“My father had an interest in nature, and he always let us explore in any way we could. It was my parents that instilled in me a desire to understand what’s going on, and lifelong learning and education. Even before I started college, I worked as a volunteer with the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, because by that point it was the 1970s, and there were so many horrendous things happening: the Cuyahoga River on fire, pollutants everywhere, other things.

“I decided I had to do something. I had heard of ‘ecology,’ and I kind of thought I knew what it was, but when I got to college, I found out it was this incredible field of powerful information that attempts to explain phenomena and things that were going on. It was highly mathematical, and you can do it on so many different levels. When I finished my work on the wasp, I had begun teaching during grad school at the college level. This was when I realized I had to put my efforts where my rhetoric was about endangered species, so it was time to switch gears and start something different.”

The highest number of seals that I’ve seen there at one time was 218, and that was March 2020, when the marinas were closed during COVID.

“When I was in grad school, I used to go out on whale-watching trips with other students in Montauk with the Okeanos Ocean Research Foundation, and I loved it. It blew me away every time, and in 1987 I decided to become one of their volunteers. I got hooked!

“Two years later, I became one of their scientists, and I’ve been leading trips and doing research ever since with whales and dolphins. Then in 1995, I began leading trips in Montauk to look at seals, and in 2004, I heard about seals at Cupsogue Beach, and in 2006 started to study there, and I’m still doing it. It’s one of the longest studies of a single site of seals in New York. As of March 2024, I’ve been there over 540 times, with over 32,000 seal encounters. My work there involves counting and photo identification, which was easier when they were much closer, but I’ve got 236 harbor seals in my catalogue, including two who have been back for their 19th consecutive year. They don’t come as close to the shore as they used to, but even then, the ones I’ve been seeing for years I can recognize from pretty much any angle.

“The idea behind tracking them is what we call ‘site fidelity’ — how often an animal will return to the same site, how long it may spend there. With the right kind of data, you can make assessments about population size and growth rate. While I’m not at Cupsogue enough to make all assessments, I can say that the highest number of seals that I’ve seen there at one time was 218, and that was March 2020, when the marinas were closed during COVID; no boats out, that makes a difference. Just looking at their behavior, how they use the site and how it’s changed over the years, there has been a tremendous increase, although this year it’s down, I’m still working on why.”

Cupsogue is a good spot for the seals … or it was.

“By the 1960s, harbor and gray seals had bounties on their skins up in Massachusetts and northward and were almost entirely wiped out. But in 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act allowed for a recovery, and seals began to return to their historical spots by the 1980s. They’re both doing well now, and Cupsogue is a good spot for the seals … or it was. Disturbance now has moved them further and further from the easily viewed spots. They used to sit on rocks along the bluffs that weren’t in the water, where it was easier to view them, which they didn’t use until about five, six years ago.

“Every year, I bring lots of people on seal walks, and I plead with them, you can come on your own, but don’t come any closer to the seals than where I take you. And when you go, you have to be quiet; some people do that and some just don’t care. I’ve seen the seals disturbed by people being noisy, rowdy or, lately, by drones. They’ve since headed east and north, which is primarily where they go now, because they’ve been spooked. We go see them two, three days a week on average. By May they’re pretty much gone, which is when we start getting ready for whale season.

“I can recognize harbor seals by their markings. Along the East Coast, we’re also seeing an increase in humpback whales, but not finback whales; it’s not a die-off for finbacks, just a change in distribution. I also have a catalogue of whales, which sometimes I can recognize by sight by their dorsal fin shape or nicks or injuries or scars or patterns of markings on the right side of their heads and backs behind their heads. Humpbacks I can recognize by the underside of their flukes, which they lift out of the water often when they dive, or by scars or their pectoral flippers and patterns. We also see short-beak common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins fairly regularly. We view these by boats. In the summer last year, we went on two, three trips a week for whales, but we’ll be going four times a week this summer out of Montauk.”

The wildlife around here, they are doing well. Unfortunately, as their numbers go up, it leads to more human interaction, ship strikes, etc., so we’ve got to be careful.

“In many ways, these animals are a critically important part of Long Island’s ecosystem, and they are doing well. Problems for whales are I think mainly being hit by vessels or entanglements. There are those trying to blame this on wind farms, and that is an absolute crock! There is absolutely no direct evidence of any whale deaths that have anything to do with wind farms. They’re being hit by boats. They’re an important component of nature around Long Island, and in a sense, their presence, in greater numbers, can hopefully lead to more awareness and better behaviors. We have to be careful when it comes to the water — plastics, pollutants, greenhouse gas emissions, all the kinds of things that have an effect on the planet.

“The wildlife around here, they are doing well. Unfortunately, as their numbers go up, it leads to more human interaction, ship strikes, etc., so we’ve got to be careful. I love seeing them, or I wouldn’t be doing this for over four decades, but I also love to educate, as a professor for 39 years. I’m semi-retired now and teach part time. They are an indication of the systems that are well, and their continued presence is a good indicator that in some ways we’re doing things properly; we just have to make sure that we do better. People come to the seal walks in the cars and park them in the lot at Cupsogue, and sometimes they sit and wait while running their engines. So, I walk up to them and say, ‘Hey, you’re here for the seal walk? For the sake of the planet, turn your engine off.’ It’s a little thing, but it makes a difference. Even the little stuff.”

Interviewed by Ian Stark