Harbor seals

Sunday night’s storm left enough snow to make walking difficult on our habitual routes, so this afternoon I walked along the piers nearest our apartment. I walked out State Pier, past the crane belonging to the Cuttyhunk Ferry Company, dodged a pickup truck driving past the wire and rigging warehouse of New Bedford Ship Supply, watched the Martha’s Vineyard ferry head out of the harbor, dodged another pickup truck belonging to the state environmental police, and went down to the end of the pier to take a look at the harbor in the waning light of a cloudy evening.

When I got to the end of State Pier, I was following a Red-breasted Merganser quite close to the pier when I swuddenly found myself looking into the face of a Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina) down in the water less than fifty feet away. It looked up at me, and I looked down at it. Another seal head popped up out of the water next to the first; two more seals rolled up out of the water farther out. The first seal dove under the water, and resurfaced again at a safer distance from the pier; I could hear the second seal breathing, a sort of huff–ffff sound as it exhaled sharply and then inhaled; then it dove under the surface and disappeared.

It is really remarkable to come upon such a large mammal in the middle of an urban environment. And seals are large, typically some five feet long and weighing over 250 pounds — in other words, about the size of a small American Black Bear (Ursus americanus). If I came across a Black Bear while I was walking around downtown New Bedford, I’d doubtless feel a tingling of fear and a little bit of awe; because seals stick to the water, I don’t feel fear when I see them, but the sense of awe is definitely there. I don’t feel that same awe when I look at a merganser or a gull — they’re too different, and I don’t feel much of anything when I look in their faces — but a seal has a real and recognizable face, and it’s pretty much the same size as I am.

I stood watching the seals for quite a while. At one point, I counted seven seals with their heads above the surface of the water, or just having gone under the surface moments before. I stood stock still, and after a while they began to ignore me, and they came in closer to the pier. I listened to a couple more of them breathing, huff-ffff. At last a deepwater lobster boat came close by going one way, and a small tugboat passed close by going the other way, and the seals moved further away from the pier. The light was beginning to fade, so I headed home.

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