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 Bill Bernbeck
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Walkabout Journal

Dancing with Seals

The far southwest tip of Nantucket Island is Smith’s Point. It stretches out as a slim sand peninsula and forms the southern arm of Madaket Harbor. As such, it beckons the traveler to find his way there, to look out over the horizon where there is only the briny deep between yourself and infinity.

My journey there would be on foot. It’s early January, and a late afternoon start would give me about two hours of daylight for the walk. Packing my usual inventory of camera gear and tripod, I hoped to find a photogenic sunset gracing some feature of that sandy peninsula.

From an earlier reconnoiter I found a trail along the harbor side of the point. The path was at the high tide line. To my left, the sand dunes provided a welcome shelter from the cold wind blowing off the ocean. The sand underfoot was sometimes firm, sometimes mushy. Progress was intermittent as I found my way through the uncertain footing. The day was cold and damp. The chill found its way through the folds of my parka and sweater. Movement was the only way to keep warm.

A yard to my right, the waters of Madaket Harbor rushed along toward the neck of the point. The tide was in full ebb. Streamlines were prominent as the water flowed past my feet. I watched a seagull land on the water only to swiftly drift away. The sand bottom was visible for only a few feet from shore, and then it turned a deep, opaque, bottomless green.     

Tuckernuck Island was in clear view. I could see the narrow opening of the harbor between Smith’s Point and the island and could pick out various features on the upcoming shore. There was the usual collection of tussocks, beach grass, driftwood, and miscellaneous flotsam. Just ahead, the flotsam moved.

It was a seal. I had been fairly close to it and did not realize it was there. My approach must have startled it, and it scurried to reach the water. It was visible for only a few seconds and then gone. It would undulate its body clumsily as it flopped along.  Well – Darn! I probably missed my only opportunity to capture a picture of a seal in its habitat. I promised myself to be more vigilant now that I knew these animals might be in the area. I stopped walking and studied the beach ahead. It might prove beneficial to identify some of that upcoming “flotsam”.

I had my answer in a few minutes. A slight movement in a pile of driftwood farther ahead caught my attention. I set up my tripod and put the long lens on the camera, aimed it at the driftwood pile, focused, and – oh yes!

copyright Bill Bernbeck

The driftwood pile turned out to be a group of seals lying out on the beach. Their bodies looked more like logs from this distance. They were laying about in a casual arrangement. There was one smaller seal lying fairly close to the water’s edge, another larger one was almost into the dunes. The main group made up a mass of bodies that had no real definition yet. An occasional roll or shuffle was all that gave their presence away.

My guess is that they are gray seals. An article in the local paper told how gray seals come to Nantucket at this time of year. The seals are the first to greet visitors to the island. You see them from the ferry as they lay along the jetty approaching Nantucket Harbor. The article told more about them.

The gray seal (Halichoerus grypus, an inglorious name that translates as ‘hooked-nosed sea pig’) is found on both shores of the North Atlantic. It is also known as the Atlantic Grey Seal. There is a breeding colony on outlying Muskegut Island, and a few have also been observed on nearby Tuckernuck. Nantucket is about the southernmost part of their Atlantic range. They feed on almost anything, but primarily concentrate on fish. It should be no surprise to see them on this extremity of Nantucket during the winter.

Now what do I do? They were directly ahead, somewhat close to the pathway.  My best (and only) course would be to continue to walk slowly along the beach path. There was a clearing ahead where the dunes tapered away into a wide area of level beach out to the point. I might be able to reach that clearing, veer off away from the seals, and not disturb them. They were bound to see me coming. They probably detected me long before this. Since they had not already bolted, they must have some tolerance of human presence. Along the way, I would pause and maybe get a camera shot somewhat closer in.

I proceeded ahead. About every fifty yards, I would stop and look at them through the camera lens. They stayed in place, and I would proceed ahead another few yards.  I eventually got close enough to where their features became more apparent, and I started to take a picture with each stop. They remained in place as I reached the clearing, glancing at me now and then. I again stopped and made a few more exposures, and decided to remain there and just observe.

copyright Bill Bernbeck

Two features on these seals impressed me.  First, their bodies are so neatly streamlined. I know they have flippers, but they are tucked very close into the body mass. They looked like smooth, limbless torsos that end in a head with small whiskers. No wonder their movement on shore was ungainly.

Then there are the eyes. They are big, black, puppy dog eyes. Their eyes stand out clearly on that otherwise featureless head and body. They are so prominent that you can tell when they are looking at you from far off. They give a look that seems to plead for your attention and friendship. 

After about twenty very cold minutes of standing and watching, one of the seals made its way into the water, followed by the smaller seal already at the water’s edge. Over the next five minutes, the remaining seals did the same. Once in the water they were in their element. They swam a little offshore and bobbed with their heads above the surface, maintaining their position in the swift tidal flow with minimal effort. They eventually disappeared under water, and made their way somewhere farther offshore.

copyright Bill Bernbeck

The encounter was all too brief. It was not an extraordinary experience. Certainly, the seals made no big deal of it. The opportunity to photograph them was engaging and stimulating. It added an element of adventure to the walk.

I enjoyed that happenstance encounter. In time to come, I won’t remember the damp cold and wind. I won’t remember the temperamental footing of the sand path. I will remember those big engaging eyes. I will remember sharing a time and place with them in their own world.

Bill Bernbeck
March 2008

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