Harbor seal humbles human

Posted July 30, 2014, at 12:14 p.m.
Monument on East Bunker Ledge off the coast of Mount Desert Island.
Courtesy of Robin Clifford Wood
Monument on East Bunker Ledge off the coast of Mount Desert Island.
Harbor seals near Mount Desert Island
Courtesy of Robin Clifford Wood
Harbor seals near Mount Desert Island
Harbor seals near Mount Desert Island
Courtesy of Robin Clifford Wood
Harbor seals near Mount Desert Island
Harbor seals near Mount Desert Island
Courtesy of Robin Clifford Wood
Harbor seals near Mount Desert Island
Harbor seals near Mount Desert Island
Courtesy of Robin Clifford Wood
Harbor seals near Mount Desert Island

Harbor seals move awkwardly on land. Because they are not able to rotate their pelvis, they can’t walk on four flippers as other seal species do. They rouse from their draped repose on the rocks and kaflump along like 250-pound inchworms, making their way toward the water.

I am perfectly capable of rotating my pelvis. Nevertheless, as I traverse a long stretch of seaweedy rocks at low tide, kayak in hand, I kaflump along just as awkwardly, making my way toward the water. Jonathan and I are headed out to see the seals, and I’m hoping that my grace in the water will be more seal-like than my stumblings on the rocks.

It is a futile hope. I am a kayak novice. By the time I maneuver myself from outside to inside my boat, an operation consisting of many awkwardly cubistic poses and percussive clunks, I am already soaked, the one characteristic I share with a seal in water. Still, I gamely paddle forward into a choppy sea, trying to keep up with my husband.

At high tide, the craggy rocks of East Bunker Ledge are mostly swallowed by the sea, making its white pyramid monument an important visual landmark for mariners. At low tide, however, Bunker Ledge is an extensive fortress of exposed rock, easily visible with the naked eye from the island a mile away where I begin today’s aquatic outing. We have launched our kayaks from a rocky cove on Sutton Island, off the southern shore of Mt. Desert Island. During the 33 years that I’ve been taking in this view, I’ve gone to see Bunker Ledge once, from the noisy vantage point of a motorboat. This is the first time I’ve approached under my own power, level with the surface of the sea.

Jonathan and I stay close together so we can signal as a team with our paddles to any boats that might come our way. When you are in a kayak on the ocean, you become aware of your insignificance. You are barely a blip, invisible on a boundless expanse of water.

The wind behind us helps us along. Once we pass Sutton’s easternmost point of land, the water becomes unexpectedly animated, and we feel a little rollercoaster thrill as we mount small hills and plunge into valleys of water. Once we get to Bunker Ledge, the waves relax a bit, and so do we. We paddle along the stony cliffs on the leeward shore, steering clear of the crashing waves on the east side.

Soon we have company. Sleek gray heads bob up in the water, dark-eyed, curious, clearing their snouts of water with a startling snort, sometimes as close as 10 feet away. I’ve watched seals before, and I’ve always found them irresistibly cute. There’s something so dog-like and whimsical about a seal’s whiskery face, its open gaze. In a watery encounter with 10 or 12 of them, however, with only a thin sheet of plastic between them and you, you recognize their superiority. If they had a mind to unboat you, you wouldn’t have a chance.

Fortunately the seals’ intentions were as harmless as ours. Still, we recognized that we were intruders, and chose not to overstep our welcome. On one shoreline several seals lie on the sunny rocks. I later learned this is called “hauling out,” a necessary daily practice for seals so they can be warmed by the sun.

“Harbor seals hauled-out often assume a characteristic banana shaped profile,” I read on the Palomar.edu website — a humorously apt description.

I also learned that human interference with the haulout is not an uncommon nuisance for harbor seals. They need to get warm. Jonathan and I inadvertently interrupted the haulout of several banana-shaped profiles on the shores of Bunker Ledge, who felt compelled by our presence to kaflump prematurely into the chill water. They barked their resonant honks to each other, maybe scolding us for our lack of consideration.

Sorry seals. I hope you got warm, in the end. And perhaps it was as entertaining for you to watch us as it was for us to watch you. Did any of you glide effortlessly behind us for a mile and watch us haul out with our ungainly plastic burdens back onto shore? Did your eyes twinkle at our stiff unfolding as we extricated ourselves from our boats, cramping in comical grimaces? Maybe your barks weren’t scolding after all but raucous laughter.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at robin.everyday@gmail.com.

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