Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wishing the Harp Seal Safe Travels

Late Sunday afternoon, after walking the dogs, I burst into the house, called to Dick, my husband, talking as I climbed the stairs, “You have to put on your jacket. I have something to show you.”

Sitting on the living room couch, Dick looked up from the Sunday paper. He was a tall man with a long face, round trusting eyes. “Now?”

“Now,” I said.

Moving slowly, he folded the paper, then placed it on the low coffee table. “I’ll bet it’s an animal,” he said.

We lived at the end of a dirt road on the coast of Maine, and we loved sharing our animal sightings, the fox and her kits, porcupines, deer, wild turkeys, pheasants, hawks, owls, a rare blanding turtle, and once we’d watching from the deck as a moose swam in the surf past our house.

“I’ll bet it’s an animal,” Dick said, again as he climbed into my car. I didn’t answer. “A moose.”

As we approached a tidal inlet about a mile and a half from the house, I saw that we weren’t alone. A woman had come with two children. The animal control officer’s car was there, along with another car. This stretch of road was on a curve. There was a short metal barrier, a slope that led to the marsh where snow and ice had flattened out.

We were in the middle of a cold spell, and that day the high was twenty-seven. Snow on the sides of the road had hardened to the consistency of cement. Portions of the inlet had frozen. Getting out of the car, Dick pointed to the ducks, mostly mallards. “They aren’t frozen there?”

“Of course not,” I said. “Why would you think that?” My voice was hard, impatient. I wanted him to find that pair of black eyes. “Look a little closer to shore.

I watched as surprise transformed his face. “What is it?” he said.

“A seal,” I said.

“I’ve never seen a seal that looked like that.”

Nor had I. Mostly white, white head, white body with black spots. Yet, it surely was a seal, the shape, the flippers, the wonderful seal face. The animal rested on a peninsula of ice and snow, lifting its head, turning its neck, as curious about us, it seemed, as we were about him.

Talking to the animal control officer, I learned that we were looking at a young male harp seal. He was fine, not injured, not beached, simply resting. The officer had come to put up signs, warning onlookers not to approach the animal. The seal was protected by the Marine Mammals Protection Act of 1972. All of us should have been a hundred feet away. We weren’t. The seal lowered his white head to the ice, still watching with his coal black eyes. His whiskers twitched.

We drove home each inside a bubble of comfortable silence, until finally, Dick said, “I hope he’ll be all right.”

The optimist in me replied, “Of course he will.”

Doing research on the internet, I learned that harp seals had been seen as far south as New Jersey, that this male’s spotted coat would remain until sexual maturity when his harp pattern would form on his back. His head, too, would turn black. Harp seals that did not develop the harp pattern were called spotted harps. Adult harps grew to five or six feet and weighed between three hundred and four hundred pounds. I learned that babies were born on the ice, and loss of sea ice was a potential threat to the seals’ habitat.

Then, I was reminded of something I hadn’t thought about for years and years: the Canadian Seal Hunt. Once I read those words, nightmarish images of bloody ice, dying seals and hunters bludgeoning and skinning seals returned. I’d thought all that had ended, but it hasn’t. The hunt in Canada is described as the largest slaughter of marine animals in the world. The Canadian government subsidizes the hunt. Right now, both the U. S. government and the E. U. ban the importing of seal products; however, the Canadian government is pressuring both the United States and the European Union to lift the ban. In addition, the Canadian government is looking for new markets for seal products, especially in China. A fight I thought was over is not over. So many battles, it seems, need to be fought over and over. I’m thinking of the recent assaults in Congress and in state houses on women’s reproductive rights. I’m thinking of the ongoing battles for gay rights, for a just immigration policy, for health care. Perhaps, it took a young male harp seal, resting briefly on a peninsula of snow in my home town to remind me that our fights for justice and for decency are never won, never over, but ongoing.

The next morning, as I drove past the inlet, I stopped to see the harp seal, but he was gone. Perhaps, he’d left on the last high tide. I wished him safe travels.