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Saving Seals

Our duties in this world, and beyond

by Brenda Peterson
Illustration by Michael McCurdy

Published in the January/February 2008 issue of Orion magazine



Illustration by Michael McCurdy

For more information visit http://www.sealsitters.org/.

“WITH 9/11, the blessed countdown for the Rapture has begun,” my neighbor George informed me almost casually.

He caught me off guard. After decades of giddily anticipating the end of the world and getting no response from me, most of the true believers in my family have stopped asking if I’m ready to be swept up in the Second Coming. Plus, this was the last place I expected to be proselytized. George and I sat perched on driftwood, keeping watch over a seal pup that had hauled up onto our backyard Salish Sea beach. Because most Seattle city beaches are barricaded by concrete sea walls, these natural beaches are precious to harbor seals, a place where they can give birth, nurse, rest. Every spring through September, mother seals leave their pups here while they fish. Staying the official one hundred yards away as required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, we neighbors keep watch on the vulnerable pups in shifts of usually four hours. It’s a startling stretch of time together with people we usually whiz past in our busy lives.

“Hmmmmm,” I answered in a whisper, hoping that my neighbor would lapse into the companionable silence we usually enjoy together while seal sitting, as we call our beach communion. “Hand me the binoculars, will you?”

This pup was about two feet long, round and robust, its speckled fur camouflaged against the rocky beach. It was breathing regularly, with no yellow discharge from its mouth or nose—all good signs, according to Kristin Wilkinson, the expert on marine mammal strandings from NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) who gave us our training. We didn’t see any wounds, such as orca bites, propeller gashes, or bullet holes. But he could have suffered some internal injuries. Only careful observation and time would reveal his fate. If the pup is injured or doesn’t leave the beach after forty-eight hours, we call NOAA, which may send someone to remove it to a rehab shelter for treatment. Though Washington State has a thriving seal population, 50 percent of juveniles do not survive their first year, and every seal season we neighbors witness at least one or two seal pup deaths.

George and I were sitting second shift, after Mike, our “poet laureate of seals,” and Suzanne, a labor and delivery nurse who is particularly adept at reading the newborn seal’s body language. Can he lift flippers and head in the agile “banana position” to scan for predators and mother? There are twenty-four of us who patrol several beaches. We keep a phone tree and Internet contact, and when someone spots a lone pup, whoever is available heads out to keep watch. Our most important job as seal sitters is to politely shoo dogs and overly curious people away from the pup, partly because diseases are communicable among the three species. We also chat with other neighbors and passersby, and educate them in seal etiquette. If the mother returns and finds her pup surrounded by too much human activity, she may abandon her baby.

“This pup looks plump and healthy, don’t you think?” I asked George in a whisper.

“I sure hope so,” he murmured.

Suddenly, a foghorn moaned in baritone blasts, and the seal pup shuddered. He lifted his head, his black eyes huge, his tiny ear slits opened wide, listening.

“That’s how it’ll happen, you know,” George said quietly. There was a note of triumph in his tone. “The trumpets will sound, and we’ll be lifted up far away from here.”

For a moment I considered not engaging in this loopy, no-exit dialogue. But we had a lot of time and a seal pup on our hands.

It was April, and perhaps Passover and Easter were on my neighbor’s mind. After a particularly chill and rain-soaked winter, spring seemed a resurrection with its blizzards of cherry blossoms along our boardwalk, its tulip trees and bursting purple and scarlet rhododendron bushes. “Listen, George” I began. “Why are you so . . . well . . . cheerful about the end of the Earth?”

This gave him a moment’s pause. Then he said, with some chagrin, “You can’t blame us born-agains for wanting at last to get our heavenly rewards. We’ve waited thousands of years.”

His dark eyes flashed a familiar fire I’d seen in preachers’ faces at the summer tent revivals of my childhood when sinners dramatically fainted, either from the heat or the paroxysm of their inner demons “getting behind them.” It was always bewildering to witness usually strait-laced adults flail about speaking gibberish, and then transform again into perfectly upstanding and polite believers just in time for the potluck.

I will never forget Mrs. Whitdinger rising from her impressive fit on the dirt floor of the revival tent to politely serve up heavenly hash—that Southern concoction of lime jello, whipped cream, mandarin oranges, and miniature marshmallows. I figured repentance helped work up a good appetite.

As I watched our seal pup settle back into his vigilant scanning of the waves, his belly rising and falling in those deep drafts of breath that only the very young of any species seem to enjoy, I persisted, “Why would you want this world to end, George? What’s the hurry?”

I could see that my neighbor was now studying me as if I were the seal pup, as if he had already passed me in the slow sinner’s lane on the freeway to the Apocalypse. “The hurry is that right now we see signs and wonders proving that the End Times are upon us,” George insisted. “We’ve got holy wars, globalization, Israel’s military power, Islamic terrorists, and even global warming.” This last sign he pronounced brightly, as if our global climate was gleefully graduating into a hot time in the old world.

I wanted out of the conversation. I felt claustrophobic in the tight grip of my neighbor’s end-times intensity. Oddly, I wondered if my restlessness was like the anxiety fundamentalists seem to feel about the whole world, as if they are trapped by the original gravity of their sins. Perhaps to the Rapture hopefuls, the Earth’s fall into global warming signals that our world has become what they always suspected—hell, the “fire next time.” Perhaps their Rapture prophecy is a kind of biblical lullaby to calm their environmental terrors. As one of my family assured me, “There are no drowning polar bears and melting ice caps where I’m going.”

It struck me that being “raptured” out of this world trumped the insecurity of living and the surrender of dying. No bodily indignity. No suffering. One is simply whisked off with the fellowship of the believers, the Rapture gang, to a heavenly and just reward. In the twinkling of an eye, they say, the righteous will ascend, dropping golden dental work, nightgowns, and perhaps some spouses. Unless you count losing the Earth and billions of unfortunate sinners who cling to it, getting raptured is a blast. Who wouldn’t want to escape the prophesied plagues of locusts, frogs, and killer viruses, an Earth overwhelmed by tsunamis, volcanoes, and nomadic legions of the unsaved?

“Sandwich, George?” I rummaged in my backpack for a pimento cheese sandwich. Though I’ve backslid from my mother’s Southern Baptist religion, I still carry on her fabulous food rituals.

My neighbor shook his head. His hunger was spiritual. Not to be put off, he told me, “I’m afraid you’ll have a rough time of it here during the Tribulations.”

“Don’t you love any of us who will suffer in those tribulations?” I asked. “Those of us you leave behind?”

George took my arm a little too tightly. “But you could come with us, you know.” George was closing in, just as surely as the tide was rising, surf coming closer to our seal pup’s small, whiskered snout. I politely disengaged. Now I was a little worried. It had been twelve hours since the discovery of this pup. In a few more hours it would be high tide again. Where was the mother?

Excitedly George pulled his laptop out of his backpack.

He often brings his home office to the beach while seal sitting. We can tap into dozens of wireless haloes shimmering unseen around nearby apartments. “I’m sending you this link,” George said. “It’s the home page for the non-raptured.”

Squinting in the morning marine light, I could barely make out the computer screen, which read: “Inheriting from the Raptured.” A very official last will and testament followed: “Contact your saintly friends now. Offer to let them use the convenient form below to keep their fiscal assets from slipping into the hands of Satan’s One World Government agents.”

“But, George,” I protested, “this site isn’t serious.”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s joking,” George insisted, “it will still work.”

I saw that the will had blank signature lines marked “Infidel Witness #1” and “Infidel Witness #2.” “Well, I suppose,” I suggested with a smile, “that we can ask some of the other seal sitters to witness this for us.”

But George was completely serious. Then I remembered I had seen his car boasting a new bumper sticker: “In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned.” I had wanted to tell him that I was going to get a new bumper sticker too: “In case of Rapture, can I have your car?”

Now here he was, my dear neighbor, actually signing me up to inherit his worldly possessions—his world.

I was strangely touched.

With a pang I realized that while some End-Timers may not have the stamina and constancy for compassion, for “suffering with,” many, like George and my family, feel real concern for the infidel loved ones they will abandon. And watching George’s expectant face, I reminded myself that his spiritual stewardship, like that of some other evangelicals, did include other species and the natural world. Not long before, George had built a floating platform for an injured pup so he could find sanctuary offshore while saltwater and sun healed his gash from a boat propeller. Anchored by another neighbor’s boat buoy, this “life raft” became a refuge for many other resting and nursing seals.

George has also helped me bury the pups who don’t survive each season. We were trained to bury them deep under beach sand so their bodies can nourish the whole ecosystem. Once we seal sitters had the sorrowful task of burying a pup as the mother swam back and forth in the surf, calling and cooing to her newborn to come back to her. The mother’s moans stay in my mind these many months later.

“Oh, look,” George exclaimed in a whisper and snapped shut his laptop. “He’s up!”

Our pup intently scanned the waves for his mother and the beach for predators. For the first time, he fixed his full attention on us. Through the detached intimacy of binoculars, I could see that his breathing had steadied and he was actually rolling over on his side into a more relaxed and natural position. As he lifted his front flipper up to scratch his whiskers, his huge eyes held mine with that unblinking gaze that is at once wild and very familiar. After all, seals are our mammal kin. In coastal cultures all over the world, they are said to be shape-shifters, selkies, shedding their seal skins onshore to become human, if only for a night, a nuptial, a haunting reverie.

George and I tracked the seal pup’s every move—and now there were many. Repeatedly, he lifted his head and hind flippers to scan the waves and beach, then scratched, scooted, rolled over, and gave a long, leisurely yawn. 

If, over the hours spent hauled out, seals are protected by a discreetly distant circle of seal sitters, we’ve actually seen their initial wariness relax into deep naps. The seals know we are near, and because we do not approach they find some peace. And so do we. Even more than a service to wild animals, seal sitting is a refuge in a world polluted by busyness. How often are we humans privileged to watch an animal dream beside us? (Studies have shown that, like gray whales and gorillas and many other animals, seals do dream.) In the way that meditation can be an anchor for all action, our neighborhood seal watch is the ground of communal compassion.

Even when a sea gull nipped at his tail flukes, our pup barely stirred. Fast asleep, he was dreaming deep through the late-afternoon dissonance of commuter traffic, rap music, some schoolboys’ Frisbee contest. Was the pup certain his mother would return? Was George this sure of the Second Coming?

“George,” I suggested, “why don’t you take a break? Go join your family for supper.”

“Anytime now,” George murmured, “the mother will return. That’s my favorite part.”

And then I understood something about my neighbor and about myself. All of us know what it feels like to wait for someone to call, to finally come home, to recognize our love, to reunite with those of us who long for something more, something greater than ourselves. Maybe it will come in the night, in that twinkling of an eye. Maybe it will save us from a lonely beach.

As if in answer to our longing, a glossy head popped up far out in the waves. The seal pirouetted to find her pup on the beach. George and I sat absolutely still, hardly breathing. A soft cooing call from the mother. The pup fairly leapt up, flippers unfurling like wings. Flop, flop, flop, and then an undulant body-hop along beach stones as the pup inched toward the surf.

“Ah, you’re safe now, buddy,” George sighed, as the seal pup slipped into the waves and swam as fast as his tiny flippers could carry him back to his mother. There was tranquility in George’s face, a sweet calm that often comes from sitting on the beach all day with nothing to do but watch over a fellow creature. From our driftwood seat, we saw the two seals dive and disappear. Nearby, comic black-and-white harlequin ducks popped up in the waves. Even though our seal sitting was over, we didn’t move. A great blue heron swooped in with the caw of a dinosaur bird. How could this ancient bird fly with such huge wings? How did she escape extinction? Somehow the great blue had adapted beautifully.

The driftwood creaked slightly under our weight. It was a madrona log, its soft ruby bark peeling from years lost at sea. I surprised myself by going back to the subject I had worked so hard to avoid. I asked George, “What if we’re sitting here to make sure that there will be something left for our kids?”

He seemed to ponder this for a while. “You’re a really good neighbor, George,” I told him. “We would all miss you so much if you zipped up to heaven. We’d all say, ‘Well, there goes the neighborhood!’”

George took the compliment in stride. Along with seal sitting, he also participates in our neighborhood block watch. He is someone I might call upon in an emergency, unless, of course, that emergency was the Rapture.

“I’ll miss you,” George admitted, “and . . . and all this, too.”

“You know George,” I said softly, “I really want to be left behind.”

My neighbor looked at me thoughtfully and then fell quiet as we watched another harlequin float past, bright beak dripping a tiny fish. Happy, so happy in this moment. The great blue cawed hoarsely and stood on one leg in a fishing meditation. Wave after bright wave lapped our beach, and the spring sunset glowed on our faces. We sat in silence, listening to waves more ancient than our young, hasty species, more forgiving than our religions, more enduring. Rapture.

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Brenda Peterson is the author of fifteen novels and nonfiction books, including, most recently, Animal Heart.

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