May 5, 2011

Longing to Speak Seal

Lily and I strolled along the shore this afternoon for our first beach walk of the spring. We saw a dark figure from a distance. What was it? The undulations made it clear that we weren’t looking at anything with legs.

Had to be a seal. Was it a baby? Or just small? Neither of us could tell, but we felt protective, all the same. We weren’t carrying cell phones, so we couldn’t call for help. As we moved closer, our shoes ran over the edge of a message some previous walker had left in the sand. “ANIMAL STRANDING KNOWS.” We weren’t the first to have come across the seal. No point, then, in trying to send an alert. I wrote my own message in the sand: “SEAL VERY TIRED 3 PM TH.” Who would read this? Certainly not the seal.

We watched the seal labor its way to the dune.  It left an odd trail, pushing off with flippers, propelling its sleek, round body in short slithers.  Eyes open, blondish whiskers on end, it drew deep breaths from its muzzle into its chest, then drooped its head onto the sand. Were we anthropomorphizing to imagine the seal felt defeated?

Last summer, we routinely swam at high tide with seals in the Atlantic. We walked on the beach at low tide and waved to them. Our dog Amos barked and barked, begging them to come ashore to play. And then he braved the surf, paddling out to meet them. They didn’t appreciate his pathological friendliness, diving beneath the waves as soon as he got near. All of us, human and canine, wanted to bond with these pup-like creatures.  We stopped trying when the Coast Guard issued alerts about Great White sightings. The sharks were apparently as interested in these uncharacteristically large groups of seals as were we.

What was the kindest thing Lily and I could do? Lily walked behind the seal, thinking the seal might move away from her down towards the water. The seal made a few short moves, then took a deep breath and stopped. Our distress increased. The tide was going out. If the seal didn’t get itself into the ocean, it’d be another six hours before the tide rose enough to buoy it back into the sea. By then, we figured, the little seal would be dead. We spoke to the seal as if we were speaking to Amos. Which is sort of how we’d speak to a toddler. The seal lifted its head and opened its eyes. It took another deep breath and looked — we thought — as confused as we felt. Then it moved towards the high water mark in the sand.  We cheered it on as it approached the water’s edge. And then it stopped.

I bent down low.  My hands scooped wet sand, which I threw at the seal. Lily was appalled. But the seal scooched towards the water.  So I scooped more sand and lunked it seal-ward. “Wah!” the seal said. Lily and I froze. “Wah!” we said back. The seal took yet another deep breath and stopped moving. The water was so close! A few more slide-hops, and that little round pinniped would be in place so the waves would grab it. Lily and I reverted to the only seal language we could muster.  We pulled in our elbows and clapped our hands together, making barking noises that sounded like…humans trying to sound like cartoon seals. I threw a little more sand. The seal began to wriggle parallel to the water, then once again faced the dune.

“No more sand throwing!” Lily shouted. I argued that we should do everything we could to get the seal back in the ocean. Lily argued that if the seal wanted to get into the water, it would already have done so. After another fifteen minutes mostly of watching, we walked back to the car. We periodically swiveled our heads to check — the seal still wasn’t near the water.

Was it sick? Was it too tired to swim? Do seals get too tired to swim? Was it a very small, very old seal whose time had come?

My run-in with the little seal reminded me of the stunned birds I’ve tried to nurse back to health, the stray animals I’ve tried and failed to revive. Unlike others who might nurse the stunned and stray out of altruism, I’ve always been hoping that if they get better, they’ll tell me what happened. No matter who or what I meet, I always want to have a conversation.  I want to hear the story, to understand.  And this exasperates my husband and children. Sam to me, a few years ago: “Can’t you just go through the check-out line without…asking???”  The answer then, now, and probably forever?  Um, no. Today, I longed for a translator fish to pop in my ear, a la Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide, to communicate with everyone and everything — strangers, teenagers and, especially, seals.