Dancing with Seals
By Tamia Nelson
December 24, 2002
Look, stranger, at this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers,
Stand stable here
And silent be,
That through the channels of the ear
May wander like a river
The swaying sound of the sea.
W.H. Auden, Look, Stranger!
I'd seen the Atlantic before, but always
from a settled shore or crowded public beach. This was a different ocean.
Conifer-crowned islands. Rocky inlets. Sparkling bays that were
transformed into pungent mud-flats at low water, their rich, rank expanse
dissected by the shifting channels of freshwater streams. And no sign of
human presence except for an occasional lonely cottage or distant fishing
boat, its passage signaled more by sound than sight.
It was early October on the south coast of New Brunswick. Green water,
flecked with curds of foam, slopped against the cobbles at my feet. A
barely-perceptible breeze dimpled the surface of the swell. The sky rose
in a gray-blue wash above the black rock walls of the narrow cove.
I looked out beyond the mouth of the cove, toward the Bay of Fundy.
Then the scene changed. Far away to the south, right at the limit of my
vision, a tiny conical form rose from the water, a dark silhouette against
the lighter surface of the sea. And then another. And another. Soon the
sea was dotted with small dark forms, bobbing up and down in the easy
swell. Now and then one would disappear as quickly as it had come into
Was I seeing things? I blinked repeatedly in an attempt to clear my
clouded, road-weary vision. But when I opened my eyes, the shifting
constellation of bobbing forms was still there. I reached for my
binoculars, not remembering that they were packed away until my hands
closed on air. I didn't bother walking over to the truck to get them. The
short autumn day was coming to a close. Even as I watched, the small dark
forms faded from view, leaving me wondering what I'd seen.
Then something popped up only fifty feet from where I stood, ending the
mystery. There was no mistaking the puppy-like head of a seal. We
inspected each other warily in the failing light. I'd seen seals before,
but only in an aquarium tank in a so-called "fun park." Fun for some,
perhaps. But not, I think, for the seals. They patrolled the boundaries of
their sterile, circumscribed world in endless, weary circles, their
progress marked by the click of camera shutters. Whenever one of them
happened to look my way, I saw no hint of interest or acknowledgement in
its eyes, only the stupefied gaze of resignation, madness, or despair.
The animal now before me was very different. Its eyes were alive with
an intelligent curiosity. Automatically, I inclined my head in greeting,
but the seal didn't return my nod. Instead, it pivoted slowly from side to
side, its face mirroring bemused wonderment at the awkward, land-bound
creature it saw before it. Then it, too, slipped back down into the water.
I waited a few minutes to see if it would pop up again. When it didn't, I
turned away from the sea and trudged over to the truck.
The following morning saw Farwell and me launching our boats in another
sheltered cove. It was just past high water. Our kayaks were stretched
slalom boats, ill-suited to challenging strong tidal currents. That didn't
matter, though. Tomorrow we hoped to make a trip out to a small island
just visible to the south. But today we had no plans beyond exploring the
margins of "our" cove. At most, we thought we might paddle a short
distance up a nearby creek and then float down with the ebb of the tide.
And that's more or less what we did. When we got back, after navigating
carefully around sandbars and driftwood strainers, the sea had abandoned
our cove. We dragged our boats over the wrack-strewn cobbles, then sat
down on the trunk of an uprooted cedar to take in the scenery.
Time and tide wait for no one. I'd heard that old saw before, of
course, but only now was I beginning to understand it. As a geologist, I'd
thought I had a pretty good handle on time. And so I didin one sense
at least. I could certainly speak glibly about changes occurring over
millions of years. I'd also acquired a rudimentary understanding of the
earth's long history. I had only to look at the cliffs around us to know I
was seeing a vagrant scion of European stock, marooned on the North
American continent when the Atlantic Ocean divided Europe from America,
more than 300 million years ago.
The tides were something else, though. I was at home among clashing
continents. I could chart the ebb and flow of land masses with an easy
familiarity. But the great slosh of the Atlantic that filled and emptied
this cove twice each day was altogether alien. I knew the record of the
rocks, to be sure, but I didn't know anything at all about the living sea.
I knew something about the earth's skeleton, but I'd yet to learn its
All this came to me much later, however. At the time, my attention was
given over to simpler things. We ate our lunch, napped, and waited for the
sea to return to our cove. (WE wait for the tide, I thought, and
this commonplace realization took on the semblance of profundity.) The
weak afternoon sun warmed the salt mud and seaweed, releasing an
intoxicating stink that was equal parts new life and decay. A cow moose
came to the edge of the creek we'd explored earlier, paused to study us,
and then trotted across. She negotiated the steep banks with great care
and delicacy, vanishing into a tangle of hemlocks. It was like a
visitation from some great prehistoric beast.
Hour by hour, throughout the afternoon, the Atlantic crept closer. At
suppertime, we launched our boats again, paddling over the now-hidden
mud-flats and cobbles. We were the only paddlers in the cove, but I soon
realized we weren't alone. One after another, the faces of seals appeared
above the surface of the sea. As we continued our brief circumnavigation,
their heads swiveled to follow our progress. They watched us in silence,
disappearing and reappearing, sometimes closer, sometimes farther away.
The only sounds were the murmur of the low surf and the splash of our
A little later, as we hauled our boats out of the water in the
deepening twilight and a thick sea fog rolled in from the south, the seals
came close inshore. Once again, their eyes met mine. For a few minutes we
looked at each other across the unbridgeable gulf between our two worlds.
Then we went our separate ways. Farwell and I climbed up to our rented
cabin, to the evening news and a late supper. The seals, still silent,
followed the now-ebbing tide back out to the open sea. There was no
question which of us was more at home.
Copyright © 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights