I receive an email at 4:30 p.m. stating that as of 4 minutes ago there are 276 harbor seals on the beach.
For the past week or so there have only been around 75 harbor seals in the area. I’m excited and start rushing around to get to the beach NOW. I need to eat something, anything that will fill me up. I quickly fry an egg over hard, slap some mayo on a piece of toasted bread and wolf down the sandwich. I know that I will be at the beach until dark and that the coastal fog is already setting in. It’s chilly. I think to take a cozy winter jacket, but don’t want to take the time to change into sweats. I go “as is” in my trademark khaki capris and a ¾ sleeve t-shirt. I’m finally ready to go. I grab my camera and I’m out the door.
If I could transport myself there now, I would, but I have to make the 10 minute drive up and over Mt. Soledad and down into the village of La Jolla. I can hardly wait. It is cold at the beach and the sky is gray. There will be no pretty sunset tonight. I quickly find parking.
As I walk down to the seawall, I note there are 2 adult seals on the unprotected beach and of course there are tourists too close to the seals shoving their cameras right into the poor wild animal’s faces. I stop and yell down to them to step away from the seals. They look up in surprise and reluctantly move back about 5 feet. I know they will creep up close again after I leave, but I take comfort in the knowledge that these are adult seals and are fully capable of leaving if they want to. Thank goodness there are no baby seals there or I would have to stop.
I continue walking down to the sea wall, which is like a sort of curved pier wrapped around the beach creating a man-made cove. & there they are more than 275 seals on the beach. The beach is wall to wall harbor seals all sleeping and snoozing side by side. They’ve been up on the beach for a while because their fur is all dry and fluffy and I can see all the fur colors and patterns of each seal. Most of the seals are shades of browns, but a few are white or black.
I remember when I first saw just under 300 harbor seals on the beach. I could hardly believe my eyes. It was like being in a nature movie, instead of watching one. I think this is when my seal addiction first began. I couldn’t believe that this was right in my own “back yard”. It is what drives me to protect them, to educate people about them and to hope that people will someday love them exactly the way that I do.
Right now I’m so excited to see all the pups, which are all about 4 to 6 weeks old. I pop my camera lens cover off, turn the camera on, adjust the zoom lens and put my eye to the camera. I want to see every single pup to see if they are okay and if I can recognize them.
The ones closest to me are curled up in sleep like little stuffed animals that a child would cuddle and take to bed. They don’t seem real these darling little pups. Their tiny flippers with delicate little claws belie the fact that they still have sharp little teeth and would fight for their lives if someone tried to pick them up. & suddenly I realize that the beach is quiet. No more chorus of pups calling for their mothers. These pups are weaned! There are no more sweetly nursing pups with moms.
Instead the males are growling at each other if they get too close. Mating season has begun and the boys are jockeying to impress the females.
& the sea gulls are mating like crazy all over the beach, too. I even spot one seagull taking a small twig into the lifeguard construction area. Just like last year, she’s building her nest there, which will cause the lifeguard tower construction to be delayed. Silly gull.
Meanwhile, I’m on the seawall luxuriating in the bounty of seals. Did they return because it’s cold & they are molting or because they had their fill of eating octopus and squid or because it was just time to take a rest from swimming in the sea? I’ll never know. I’m just thrilled to see them all here. & miraculously no person crosses the rope to get closer to the seals causing them to flush into the sea in fear. It’s just me on the seawall and about a hundred people who come and go every few minutes. Everyone is excited to see the seals. Children squeal in excitement and joy. “Look mom, there are seals!” Visitors clap their hands to implore the seals to raise their heads for a photo op, while I counsel them that the noise can scare the seals away and show them the baby seals and tell them they are only 4-5 weeks old.
Some visitors marvel and ask questions and are happy to have some info, but some visitors don’t need to know anything about these wondrous creatures, they just want to see them. I understand. I used to be like that, too. Now I have spent enough time here, seen enough births that I am more connected to them. I have heart strings attached to the seals. The older seals have earned my respect as I watch them lead the colony up onto the beach only when they think it’s safe. The yearlings that now blend in with the adults have survived their first year of life and exude a confidence and insouciance that belies their short year of life. & the pups still have their eyes wide open in wonder at the world, but they are fitting in, finding their place in the colony & learning to thrive. I only see one or 2 pups that seem small, but perhaps they were born late in the season.
I watch and worry over my little baby seal pups.
I spot an adult seal that reminds me of Buddha mother seal. Her whiskers are perfectly arranged like a woman with coiffed hair. Once the pups are weaned the mothers blend back into the colony unrecognizable as females with babies. Is this the way for all mothers? I know some human mothers who cling to their children and others who don’t cling enough. I have never observed a seal mother touching noses with her baby once the baby is weaned. Her “little bird” seal pup has flown the nest, or in this case, embraced a life in the sea, & she lets him go as she must move directly into the mating season, which will produce next year’s bounty of newborns.
Mostly though I watch the pups. A little black one curls up his tiny flipper “feet” and then stretches them out like a mermaid’s tail. A plump little white one with black spots yawns & then returns to sleep. A thin black one with white spots cranes his tiny head up over the adults to see if that was danger he heard or just a seagull causing mischief. Satisfied it was nothing, he rolls over to snooze some more.
I think I see Gidget, a seal pup born on February 6. She became a huge pup while she was nursing and she still is a huge weaned seal. She must be finding and eating lots of squid and fish.
& I think Scamp, the motherless pup, is there playing in small waves at the edge of the shore. Letting the waves roll him back and forth, over and over like a lullaby from the sea. I hear him call for a mother he doesn’t have, but he only calls twice and settles back into playing in this big, wide world he has been born into. I know these seals.
I know these seals like I know the opossums in my patio and the giant raccoon who shows up demanding cat chow and brought her babies along with her this year. Like the feral cat who shows up each morning for breakfast. Like my own aging face, which I see in the mirror each day. I know these seals. They are part of my life now. A routine that I enjoy. Part of my everyday life. I thank whatever serendipitous actions on my part led me to this time in my life, these moments of joy.
What I have learned from observing these seals is a lot. I have learned that the more time I spend with them and the more patience I have, the more I see. I know that when I am there and it appears boring as nothing is going on, my eyes will wander to the horizon and I will spot the heart-shaped spouts of migrating gray whales. I will be thrilled as I watch the pelican dive into the cove over and over for fish and will see the fish slide down his pouch. I will see the sea gulls take sea baths.
The cormorants will sink deeply into the sea and then dive and come up with a sparkling fish in their beak.
The pelicans will fly by with wings almost touching the water and then rise up in unison as the wave breaks near them.
The sea lions will bark and jostle for the best spot to sleep with others. The seagull babies will hatch and jump up & down in their anticipation of flight. The gulls will laugh at each other and probably at us.
The hermit crabs wander in the tide pools and the orange Garibaldi fish will be exposed as the eel grass sways in the movements of the sea. Tiny tide pool crabs will scurry off of the sea wall as I approach. & I will think about them, but most importantly, I will feel. I will feel blessed. I will feel lucky. I will feel riches beyond belief. I will feel delight & joy. Taking time to slow down and to be a part of this wonderful world should be a priority for me every day. All day. All of the time. Nothing else matters.
It is freezing out here on the sea wall. The sun has set without being seen in the coastal fog. A few adult seals are leading the way and moving further up the beach. High tide must be on its way. I leave the seawall, climb the steps and notice that the adult seals on the south beach have been chased away by the tourists getting too close. At least I won’t have to worry about them tonight. I hope they went to the main beach, where they are protected from people’s approach. I find a place on the park bench so I am now sitting up above the seals on a high bluff. They are still there. I feel relief. I want all of these people to go home now. It’s cold and it’s getting dark, but still people linger at the wonder of these majestic creatures of the sea. Even sleeping on the beach, motionless and somewhat boring to the untrained eye, these animals capture the tourist’s imagination. I mentally say goodnight to the seals, wish them a peaceful night’s rest and head for my car where I will turn on the heater full blast to try to warm up these aging bones of mine. I drive home thinking of hot tea, warm oatmeal and sweats, but my heart remains with the seals. I carry this beauty in my heart.