Here to return to
THE HARBOR SEAL
EARLY one April day an old man, who had rowed a heavy dory across from Plum Island, struggled up Ipswich beach, carrying on his arm a clam-basket full of turnips for the lighthouse-keeper. His back was bent with the weight of many years and the digging f many clams, but his eyes twinkled when I asked him whether he had dug the turnips on the bar, and he admitted that although “Robin reef” was a good place for sea-clams and seals, it was a pretty poor place for vegetables. Why it was called Robin reef he could not say, for he had seen “nairy a robin” there, but that had been its name as long as he could remember, and his father had called it Robin before him. The explanation, however, is a simple one, for robin or robyn is the Dutch name for seal, and has frequently been applied to reefs. For example, DeKay speaks of a reef of rocks in New York harbor “called Robins’ Reef from the numerous seals that are accustomed to resort there,” and it may be remembered that the Pilgrims came to New England after a sojourn in Holland.
Although the harbor seal is a common and characteristic animal of these regions, a creature of great bulk, sometimes weighing over two hundred pounds, and attaining a length of five feet, it is an animal of whose presence the casual observer is generally quite unaware. It belongs to the cosmopolitan group of hair-seals that inhabit our eastern sea-coast as far south as New Jersey, and increase in numbers, both of individuals and of species, as one goes north. Rarely a harp or a hooded seal straggles to the Massachusetts shores, while on the Labrador coast a full half-dozen different kinds are to be found. All these are clad in short, stiff, bristly coats, which lack the soft under-fur, for it is only on the Pacific coast that the true fur-seals, from which are obtained the soft sealskin jackets, are to be found. These animals belong to a very different family, often called sea-bears. They possess external ears, which are absent in the hair-seal, and their hind feet, instead of being permanently directed backwards as in the hair-seal, can be turned forward for walking purposes when on land.
It is believed that these two groups of seals have attained similar stations in life by two independent paths. The fur-seals trace their ancestry to bear-like animals, while the hair-seals are thought to have come from an otter-like animal. Both groups are of comparatively recent origin, and are found first in the Eocene period.
As the tide ebbs the seals repair to Ipswich bar while it is still awash, and try to maintain their position against the battering of the waves. Occasionally one is caught broadside and rolled over by the breakers, while unusually heavy seas may suddenly carry all the herd into deeper water, where nothing but their round dark heads are to be seen bobbing about the submerged reef. However, the tide flows out rapidly, and one by one they manage by hook or by crook to get on to the bar — if they are not actually stranded there — and soon the whole herd is established on dry ground.
With back braced against the timbers of an old wreck on the beach, and with a good telescope resting on a forked stick stuck in the sand, one can spend very enjoyable hours in the close company of these interesting beasts. Twenty years ago I have counted as many as fifty seals together on Ipswich bar, but of late years from fifteen to twenty-four is the usual number, although on March 10, 1912, I found forty-four of these animals on the bar.
Splendid fellows are these seals, and wonderful in the variety of their coloration. As far as I know, this is the only mammal that varies so much in the color of its coat. At a distance the seals look very dark when wet, but of a uniform gray or buff when dry, while near at hand, or studied with a good glass, they display a great variety and considerable beauty of pelage. Some are nearly white with a silvery sheen, others delicately shaded in grays and browns, still others mottled with large dark spots or patches, while others still are so wonderfully decorated with small round spots that they suggest at once a leopard. This variation in colors occurs among both the males and the females, the young and the old, and one may see a small seal of a uniform silvery gray, and a large one leopard-spotted, and vice versa. I knew one old silver-gray fellow with great mustachios, who presented a singularly festive appearance, for a wreath of dark spots was disposed around his wrinkled neck. Another, a very dark individual, possessed a grayish white face that gave him a weird and at the same time a comical expression. Many of these sea-leopards are of a beautiful yellowish-olive hue, spotted with black, while others look decidedly greenish with gray spots, and others still are most striking in a coat of nearly pure white, ornamented with large round spots.
I said that the seals managed by hook or by crook to get up on to the bar, and, if one did not know that they were such experts in the water, one would pity their distressingly crippled methods of locomotion on land. The young seals habitually use their fore-flippers, generally together, rarely alternately, to haul themselves along, aiding their progress at the same time by a curious undulatory movement of the body, which, especially when seen head on, suggests strongly an otter or perhaps a caterpillar. The older individuals seem to prefer an entirely different and extremely singular method of progression, a specialized form of locomotion not even hinted at in any other mammal. They lie on one or the other side, with both flippers draped obliquely downwards over the chest and belly, — one cannot say where one begins and the other ends, — and they hitch along by a succession of wave-like shuffles and jerks, emphasizing the difficulties of their progress by frantic squirmings and wavings of the posterior end of their body. Now and then they fall over on their back in their strenuous efforts. I have seen a medium-sized individual hitch along partly on his side, using one flipper on the sand, while he waved the other helplessly or for balancing purposes in the air. There is no suggestion of their otter ancestry in these contortions.
GROUP OF HAIR SEALS FROM IPSWICH
Boston Society of Natural History
This one-sided method suggests that the rotundity of the bodies of the seals — their portly aldermanic bellies — renders it impossible for them to reach the ground effectually with both flippers. This, however, seems not to be the case, for when a herd is disturbed by an approaching boat, all, young and old, shuffle down into the water on their bellies, using their fore feet as best they may. Fright makes them forget any special tricks of locomotion they may have developed, and causes them to return as far as possible to the ancestral quadrupedal method. In this case, however, it is a bipedal locomotion, for the fore feet lift up and drag the body, including the hind feet, which, although doing all the work in the water, are nearly helpless on land.
In repose the seals assume various positions. The least common is the one in which they are almost invariably depicted, namely flat on their bellies with a fore-flipper on each side. It is much more common for them to lie on one or the other side with flippers arranged diagonally across their chests, as just described, and occasionally they lie flat on their backs. Not infrequently a seal reclines in what might be called a Madame Récamier position, — on the side with head and neck stretching diagonally upwards. Some touch the sand for their whole length whether they are lying on their bellies, their sides, or their backs, and appear to be completely relaxed in sleep, while others are very wide awake, and assume a bent-bow position, the curve of the side or belly alone resting on the sand.
There are always some of the herd on the watch, and these often appear nervously overanxious, looking first one way, and then the other. Such large and intelligent eyes they have! There is something very human about these beasts. They certainly enjoy the luxury of their between-tide naps, even if there are anxious moments now and then, and it is very soothing to see a fat old seal, stretched flat on his back, extend both his apologies for arms on the sand, and indulge in a wonderful yawn which displays a huge pink mouth.
The posterior flippers — the hind feet — are generally carried palm to palm, or sole to sole, so that the thin edge points up and down in relation to the longitudinal axis of the body, instead of lying flat on the ground, as usually depicted. The seals frequently wave these flippers separately, spreading out the five toes, or press them together as if they were grasping hands; again they painfully bend one or both forward in a restrained manner that suggests hand-cuffs and a vain attempt to burst their bonds, — a pitiable state of affairs, if one did not know that this peculiar manacled arrangement of the hind legs forms almost a screw-propeller, which has given the seals such mastery in the water that they excel in speed even the fish, the real denizens of the sea. It is difficult to be both a specialist and an all-round animal at the same time. Man alone has solved this problem by the use of tools.
The short stumpy tail of the seal is very little in evidence, but as the animal painfully hauls out on the sand I have sometimes seen it erected, perhaps as the result of the hauling efforts, just as the tail f the Eskimo dog is believed to have attained its present lofty position, as contrasted with the horizontal tail of the wolf, from the straining at the sledges.
One would think that seals with their short, hairy coats and watery environment would be spared the petty annoyances that afflict most birds and beasts, yet such appears not to be the case, judging from the way in which they scratch themselves. The reach of the fore-flipper is but short, yet with these they frequently scratch their heads and necks in a very significant manner.
Every now and then the seals on the bar, with a nervous, undulatory effort, shift their position, and, if a boat approaches, they all depart in a panic into the water, with the clumsy, violent motion suggestive of a sack-race. Timid creatures they are, for they are well aware, through sad experience, of the bounty of three dollars that Massachusetts placed on their heads, — or rather tails. This bounty law was repealed in 1908, for the treasury had been nearly depleted by some Penobscot Indians, who, by the skilful manipulation of one or two seal-skins from Maine, were able to present numerous tails to the selectmen of various coast towns of Massachusetts. In all, these Indians collected several thousand dollars before they were detected. The Object of the bounty was to diminish or exterminate the seals for the good of the fishermen, who, it was supposed, suffered from their depredations among the fish. That seals are great eaters of food-fish there can be no question, but they doubtless eat also many useless and perhaps harmful species. Occasionally a seal may be seen with a fish in his mouth, but as a rule the seals appear to swallow their prey under water. I have seen one come up with a silvery herring between his teeth, at once dive, to reappear without any external sign of his prey. In Labrador I have seen them dash through the water at the mouth of a river after the trout I was seeking to beguile, without once seeing any fish in their jaws. Their fishing effectually put an end to mine, but I was well repaid by the interesting scene. To many of us the aesthetic value of seal life along our coast well makes up for the loss in fish, a sentiment which the commercial fisherman I am afraid would not appreciate.
It always seems to be the custom among the seals, whether from disinclination to move, or from a love of sport, — and I suspect the latter is the true explanation, — to remain as long as they possibly can on the sand-bars while the tide rises. With extended heads and tails, they receive the buffeting of the waves and resist being swept away into the water, as if, indeed, they were fearful of being drowned or of even wetting their heads. Some of the seals, in their endeavors to hold their places against the waves of the rising tide, give up the attempt to keep their heads above water, but elevate their flipper-tail complex and hold on for dear life with their heads and fore-flippers. It is fine sport, but the tide always wins in the end, and the “back-to-the-land movement” on the part of the seal is soon forgotten in his modern life on the ocean wave.
In an easterly storm on an August day, when the rain and the mist and the spray were driving over the bar, a herd of twenty-nine seals was gathered at the highest point, for it is not merely to sun themselves that they haul out thus. A long, low-lying, grayish-yellow sand-bar, a steel-colored sullen sea, a dirty gray sky and a seething mass of angry white breakers fringing the reef and extending in long lines on either side, formed fitting surroundings for these strange beasts. On a near-by point of the bar was a flock of perhaps a thousand herring gulls, among whom one or two great black-backed gulls could easily be distinguished by their large size, their snowy white heads and tails, and their jet-black backs and wings, while in a compact group apart were two or three hundred common terns. The deep voices of the gulls and the shrill cries of the terns sounded above the storm as the birds rose from time to time and circled over the water, while the booming of the waves formed a constant undertone.
To old Ipswich folk the voice of the ocean on the bar has interesting associations.
There seems to be no uncertainty as to the crime but some diversity of opinion as to the punishment, for:
As the tide rose, the seals were crowded together on one of the highest points of the bar, the gulls on another, while the restless terns all took flight. Soon the waves began breaking among the seals, and a few of the outlying ones were floated away and their black heads studded the water, while the air was filled with departing gulls. A little later nothing but a mass of swaying flipper-tails and bobbing heads could be seen, and as the waves receded only eleven seals were left securely on the sand, while in the gull group one old solemn black-backed and fifteen or twenty herring gulls survived the onslaught. Again the waves rolled in from all sides, and continued their battering without pause; only one seal and one great black-backed gull remained; soon they too were gone and nothing but angry breakers were to be seen rushing in all directions, as if anxious to find out and pursue any creature that dared to oppose them.
It is easy to appreciate the motives of seals that are reclining in delightful ease on a bar under the rays of the summer’s sun, but it is rather surprising to find them assuming similar positions in a heavy rain-storm, and still more perplexing when one discovers these same animals on the bar on a December day when the thermometer is but ten degrees above zero and the air is filled with snow as dry as dust scudding before a northeasterly gale. On such a day twenty-six seals were stretched in various positions of watchfulness and repose on the bar, and the snow was drifting about them. The use of the telescope was difficult, and I could not feel sure whether the water was frozen on their coats or not. The beasts were more apart than usual and apparently did not need to huddle together for warmth. A seal’s circulation must be wonderfully active, and his coat of fur and blubber wonderfully warm. It is evident that the bar is sought for repose and not solely, as is generally supposed, for a sun-bath.
On June 11th, 1910, in a violent easterly rain-storm, conditions which ensure a delightful privacy on the beach, I witnessed an interesting scene near the mouth of the Essex River. On the inner side of a sand-spit, connected by a narrow isthmus with the beach, a large seal was lying close to a baby seal of about one-third of its length. The old one wriggled into the water as soon as it saw me, but presently returned, evidently to urge its young to flee with it. The young one apparently had not reached the age at which man is regarded as a thing abhorrent, and simply nosed about the mother. Again in her trepidation she took to the water, where she splashed violently with her hind-flippers. Several times she clambered up beside her young one and again in terror fled to the water, but at last, by dint of coaxing and pushing, the youngster was got into the sea. Thereupon the old one headed for the open ocean, — from which, however, it was separated by a line of breakers, — followed eagerly by the young one, who held its head and neck high above the water and splashed awkwardly with its fore-flippers in its anxiety to follow. At times the head of the young one was so close behind that of its mother, and a little on one side, that it seemed as if the baby seal were partly supported on its mother’s back. Every now and then the mother would gracefully turn her head up and around, so that the mouth appeared to touch the outstretched mouth of the little one. What the object of this movement was, whether to encourage or to kiss the infant, or to give it nourishment, I was unable to determine, but the simultaneous action on the part of the mother and young, as performed several times, I could clearly see through my glasses.
Two or three times the mother dove, but remained under water only a fraction of a minute each time, long enough, however, to cause considerable anxiety on the part of her baby, who made more strenuous efforts at this time, and stretched its neck above water, as if looking for its mother, paddling vigorously meanwhile. They finally disappeared from my sight to seaward in the driving spray and spits of rain.
The whole performance was an exceedingly interesting one from an evolutionary point of view, as well as a charming display of motherly affection and infantile helplessness.
Under ordinary circumstances the harbor seal displays great skill as a diver, and is able to stay under water the incredible length of ten or even fifteen minutes. When alarmed by the presence of man it almost invariably seeks safety in flight below the water. This not only ensures its safety from observation and chance of being shot, but gives it opportunity for greater speed, by the elimination of surface friction and wake, and by its assumption of a shape particularly adapted for cleaving the water. Now this adult seal dove but little, and that for brief intervals, as if she recognized the inability of her offspring to follow her. The baby seal did not dive at all; it evidently had not reached the diving stage in its development, and it was indeed but an indifferent swimmer, and splashed in a very amateurish manner. All this points to the very evident fact that the seals’ ancestry goes back to land animals, and, just as the child of civilization bears the ear-marks of the savage, so the baby seal is more at home on the land than in the water. The baby seal has, however, the advantage of the baby man, for its progress to the arts of the adult is rapid, and this progress is not dependent on the careful instruction of its parents. That the mother does to a certain extent guide its ways, and instruct it in the art of swimming and diving and catching fish is probable, but that these various arts are inborn instincts, and would appear in due course of development in the entire absence of maternal supervision is also probable.
Many carnivorous animals, to which class the seals belong, are expert fish-catchers, as, for example, mink and especially otters. I have seen Eskimo dogs that were kept on rocky islands on the eastern Labrador coast plunge through the icy waters for fish, and spend much of their time in this pursuit. It is interesting to picture the gradual change of habit from a land carnivore to a sea carnivore, with a corresponding change of structure brought about by natural selection. The Acadians of southern Labrador call the seal le loop marin, and they are evidently more nearly correct than the modern Frenchman, who speaks of the seal as le veau marin.
My baby seal — the one whose actions I have just described — had already shed its white or milk coat and was clad in dark pelage. In the London Zoological Gardens, according to Flower and Lydekker, a young of this species “shed its infantile woolly coat and was swimming and diving about in its pond within three hours after its birth.”
It is generally put down in the books, and copied from one to another, that the young of seals are born in rocky caves just out of reach of the tide. Rocky caves are not abundant on the Massachusetts coast, certainly not in the neighborhood of Ipswich, and I am inclined to think that the young must often be born on sand-bars, or sandy or rocky islands, for it is very unusual to find a seal hauled up on the mainland on the closely populated Massachusetts coast. If they are born on sand-bars they must take to the water, or the water will take to them within three or four hours after their birth, and if, as is said, they never enter the water in their milk pelage, it follows that this must be shed very soon after, or in some cases even before birth. It is therefore possible, and indeed probable, that I arrived on the scene soon after the birth of the baby seal whose actions I have just chronicled, and that I witnessed its first unwilling bath. Like the silkie or seal in the ballad of “The Great Silkie of Sule Skerrie,” the old one was trying to “teach him for to swim the faem.”
While the baby seals are born in May and June, courtship takes place in the latter part of summer, particularly in September and October. How much of the actions of the seals is play and how much courtship it is difficult to say. It is not uncommon to find seals chasing one another and throwing themselves completely out of water in the exuberancy of their sport or courtship, falling back with a splash into their favorite element. Sometimes they project themselves diagonally upwards from the water, which they clear with all but the tail, and again they bound with great leaps over the surface, throwing themselves their full length with each leap. I have seen one swim before a breaker over a submerged bar, leaping forward five times as the wave repeatedly broke. Occasionally the play seems to go on just below the surface, which is broken from time to time by a perplexing display of flippers.
Oftentimes in September and October two seals will suddenly rise up from the water as far as their shoulders face to face, and occasionally they appear to bump noses or kiss. Then in a trice they disappear amid a turmoil of waters, and as they go down they usually throw up their tails and hind-flippers in the exuberancy of their spirits.
On the bars two seals often peck at each other in a sportive manner like two chickens, and rarely there is a momentary disturbance, as if an old one were swearing at one of the younger set for treading on his toes, but as a rule the time spent on the bars seems to be devoted to meditation and siestas.
On a raw March day I once witnessed an interesting seal exhibition, where a love of sport only was manifested. On this day with the ebb tide there was a procession of cakes of winter-ice floating down to the sea inside the bar of the Ipswich river. Some of the cakes bore masses of sand and mud or of thatch grass frozen into them and torn from the marshes. The game on the part of a couple of seals seemed to be to get on to the larger cakes and have a boat-ride, tossing about in the waves. The clambering up proved often difficult, and if a seal failed at one cake he would try to board another. One seal floated contentedly down into the bay, and he could be distinguished for a long distance, for his dark coat contrasted well with the white ice. Seals have advanced far on the educational road, as shown by their ability to sport and play.
As a seal thrusts its high-browed head above the surface, and regards curiously the occupants of a boat, it has a strangely human look, and this similitude is increased to an uncanny extent if a seal happens to be one’s companion while swimming. There is a very intelligent and questioning look in the direct gaze of their lustrous eyes, and it is not to be wondered at that seals were mistaken by the early mariners for mermaids.
Henry Hudson, in the journal of his voyage of discovery in search of the northwest passage in 1608, relates: “This morning, one of our companie looking over boord saw a mermaid, and calling up some of the companie to see her, one more came up, and by that time shee was come close to the ship’s side, looking earnestly on the men: a little after, a sea came and overturned her: from the navill upward, her backe and breasts were like a woman’s, as they say that saw her; her body as big as one of us; her skin very white; and long haire hanging downe behinde, of colour blacke: in her going downe they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a porposse, and speckled like a macrell. Their names that saw her were Thomas Hilles and Robert Rayner.”
“CETUS CAPILLATUS” AND “MONSTRUM MARINUM”
In those days it was a matter of common belief that mermaids existed, and it is not to be wondered at that Thomas and Robert saw one. I have sometimes reclined on a sand-spit on a warm summer’s day, half in and half out of the water and found myself the center of interest of several pairs of seals’ eyes, whose owners stretched up their heads, “looking earnestly on” me in a vain endeavor to determine what kind of a water-animal I might be. In the dark swirl of the waters back of their heads I could easily imagine I saw “long haire hanging downe behinde,” and as they went under water they frequently displayed their flanks and occasionally their tails and flippers “speckled like a macrell.”
When in a hurry, or in the ordinary course of business, a seal pushes his head forward under water as he goes down, often following it by an upward roll of the back, but frequently, when in a leisurely mood, he deliberately points his nose to the zenith, and slowly draws it straight down under water. Sometimes he swims along the surface and occasionally displays the edges of his hind-flippers above water.
The spirit of curiosity displayed by this animal is taken advantage of by seal-hunters, who conceal themselves in a blind, and, waving a handkerchief on a stick, sometimes succeed in beguiling a seal within gun-shot. Unfortunately a seal, when killed, almost always sinks, so that very few are recovered. They are afterwards cast up on the beach, and suggest from afar the whale factories of Labrador. Why dogs delight to roll in these unsavory derelicts is one of the unsolved problems of animal psychology. A picturesque instance of the curiosity of the seal, or possibly of its fondness for music, is interestingly told by the Rev. Mr. Dunbar in Macgillivray’s work on British Quadrupeds: “During a residence of some years in one of the Hebrides, I had many opportunities of witnessing this peculiarity; and, in fact, could call forth its manifestation at pleasure. In walking along the shore in the calm of a summer afternoon, a few notes from my flute would bring half a score of them within a few yards of me; and then they would swim about, with their heads above water, like so many black dogs, evidently delighted with the sounds. For half an hour, or, indeed, for any length of time I chose, I could fix them to the spot; and when I moved along the water’s edge, they would follow me with eagerness, like the Dolphins, who, it is said, attended Arion, as if anxious to prolong the enjoyment.” It is related that when the bell is rung for divine service in the church of Hoy in Orkney, all the seals gather about the neighboring shore, an incident, however, that illustrates their enquiring, rather than their religious, spirit.
I myself have attempted the Arion rôle by singing “My Country, ‘tis of thee” without producing any impression on the seals, favorable or unfavorable. Perhaps they did not recognize my efforts as music, and it is possible that I should have adopted the methods used by a naturalist in Jamaica who, it is said, when a boy, wishing to entice some snakes from beneath a rock by the power of music, marched around it beating a tin can and singing his favorite hymn, “Hark my soul, it is the Lord.”
In exceptionally calm weather, when there is no sound of surf or of wind, one may sometimes hear the voice of the seal on Ipswich bar. It is a prolonged sound, — not a short bark, — a raucous, grating roar.
While seals generally sleep on the sandbars and rocks, they also appear at times to sleep in a delightfully lazy manner while floating in the water. With nose sticking straight up, their white moustachios pointing diagonally downwards, and eyes tightly closed, they float about, swaying up and down like a buoy with the waves, which occasionally submerge them, or cover all but the tips of their noses. Only for half a minute do they remain thus, for they soon bring their heads to the usual horizontal position and open their eyes, only to sink again into their zenith-pointing doze. Occasionally they gape and display great pink caverns, but relapse at once into sleep on their waterbed.
Although seals usually occur only on the sea side of the dunes, not infrequently one or more may be seen in the waters of the tidal estuaries and rivers, up which they ascend a considerable distance and at a rapid rate with the rising tide. I have seen as many as a dozen of these animals drawn up together on the muddy edge of the marsh.
Birds and animals are all too generally classified by their power of working for man or of serving him as food or for clothing, — by their value in dollars and cents. As I was watching a flock of herring gulls circling with exquisite grace, and alighting like feathers on the Charles River Basin in Boston, I heard a teamster ask another what they were and whether they were good for anything. As his friend characterized them as entirely worthless, the men paid no further attention to them. They would have been utterly unable to understand the sentiment expressed by Thompson Seton, a sentiment that I am sure well applies to the seal: “I would preserve it, and a hundred others, even as I would preserve a beautiful picture, or view, for the unsordid joy of feasting the eyes on a sentient fellow creature, that is a little pinnacle on the cathedral of evolution, and glorious as an exemplar of beauty in the wild way of life.”