It was a gorgeous afternoon in a string of gorgeous afternoons, stretching back at least to last Friday. The rising surf broke in nearly perfect swells, imploding with muffled crashes, and rebounding sprays.
It was a powerful surf, which seemed to get its power from some invisible, distant source.
Still, the beach was clean that day – the ocean seemed to have nothing to throw up. And then, about 150 yards in front of me, I noticed what looked like a low, short, dark chunk of clay about halfway down the upper beach. As I walked toward it, one end of the chunk curled up and then back down. I looked through my binoculars and saw that it was a seal. At first I thought a harbor seal, because its coat looked mottled, although it seemed rather large for a harbor seal. But then I saw its horse head profile, so different from the harbor’s – and I knew it was a gray seal. Its head was short and stout and heavily-whiskered, giving it that old German-uncle countenance.
I assumed there was something wrong with the seal - it was so solitary, so isolated, so far up the beach and distant from any traditional hauling out place. The mottled coloration, I could see now, was actually patches of sand stuck to its wet hide. It was aware of me, but it didn’t begin to move until I came within 100 feet of it. Then it began humping down the beach, but slowly - stopping every 10 to 15 feet as if to rest. I stopped, too, not wanting to force it into the water if it was sick or injured. It had that indifferent, slightly mournful countenance at all seals have on land, as if trapped in an unsuitable body.
Even though I came no closer, it continued to drag itself seaward in short, seemingly arduous bursts. I found myself full of mixed, unformed emotions. I felt strongly for what seemed to be its distress. What was wrong with it – had it swallowed some plastic? Was it suffering from one of the many parasite infestations that seal flesh is heir to? Was it just old? Was it just lazy? And in any case, what should I feel about a sick or injured or dying gray seal, whose exploding numbers in recent years threaten to take over all of our remotes barrier beaches, consume enormous amounts of local fish, pollute our waters with their and attract sharks? I felt for its individual plight, but I could hardly be concerned about the fate of its species.
By this time it had slinked its way down the beach and out to the inner bar, where it seemed to stop, as if contemplating the tide that was just beginning to turn and rise. It seemed to have positioned itself between two fates: the devil it knew (the sea) and the devil it didn’t (me). I had now retreated several hundred feet from it and wanted to leave it there, undecided, but I could not tear myself away from looking, through my field glasses, at what seemed a simple but elemental drama. As I watched, as the seas slowly and inescapably rose to meet it, the seal gave a final, assenting push and slid smoothly, suddenly graceful, into a low wave. It disappeared into the waves’ silver side, its back surfacing again for a few seconds, like that of a small whale, before it disappeared for good.