Penguins? Murr-be

January 1, 1998

In the old days, she'd have yelled "Whale off!" upon sighting a leviathan cruising along the ocean beach. Instead, Dorri Tillinghast turned to her husband, Skip, to point out where she'd seen one breach off Georgica Beach, East Hampton, on Sunday. The monster had been spotted earlier from East Hampton's Main Beach.

Speaking of spotting, B.J. Wilson of Montauk descried three penguins at Montauk Point on Monday - or at least they looked like penguins. Mr. Wilson reportedly saw one on land and two in the ocean nearby.

Kim Durham of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, noting that the foundation receives several "penguin" sightings each year, said the birds were more likely murres, a type of diving duck usually found far offshore.

Penguinlike

Murres are black and white. When on land, they walk upright with a penguinlike gate. The birds are smaller than most species of penguin, but otherwise can easily fool the untrained eye.

Murres are very rarely seen on land, Ms. Durham said, "usually when they've been oil-spilled. There's usually a reason they're on the beach."

"But," she added, "I've learned to never say never." In 1995, she recalled, she'd said "impossible" to a man who called in a manatee sighting. It was later confirmed that a manatee had indeed traveled into New York Harbor and circled the Statue of Liberty before heading back south.

Still, said Ms. Durham, there has never been a confirmed penguin sighting on Long Island.

Whale And Seals

The marine biologist said she believed the whale spotted Sunday could be either a fin whale or a humpback, most likely a humpback because it had breached - that is, come out of the water. Fin whales are not usually in the habit of breaching.

Whales cruising the shoreline of Long Island were once a common sight, and beach-walkers might keep an eye on the horizon this time of year.

Seals have been appearing in increasing numbers. Eight were seen by walkers on a foundation-led hike Sunday morning, exhibiting "acrobatic behavior." Fourteen were on the rocks by Oyster Pond, Montauk, on Monday morning.

The foundation can be reached in Riverhead for more information about the walks.