Harp or "Saddle" seal, male April 9, 2011 Phippsburg, Mainen Soaking up the sun on the Kennebec River, Phippsburg, Maine
I went to the supermarket a few days ago. That's always a big deal because I wait until there is literally nothing left in the house to eat. I only go shopping about once a month to really restock my pantry. It's amazing how far I can stretch it, too. I can come up with very tasty dishes from a few cans of whatever, a lone onion sprouting a green tendril and a dehydrated sausage in the back of the freezer. The cue for when I must go shopping is when I get to the dead birds in my freezer, and I don't mean chicken.
I have a collection of dead birds that have hit my windows or otherwise met their demise carefully wrapped and stored in a freezer, known as "the mausoleum," in my basement. I've lost count, but there must be a dozen. Though it is against the law to possess them, when I find these birds, I just don't have the heart to throw them onto the compost or into the bushes. Most of them are as perfect as the moment before they died when flight was still their friend. It feels unfair that they died suddenly, sometimes inexplicably at thier most beautiful. They are so lovely, even the plain-Janes of the bird world. It seems disrespectful to the dead to just fling them. So, I wrap them in a paper towel shroud and double bag them. Into the mausoleum they go. God bless whomever invented the zipper lock bag, commonly known as "Zip Locks," for they maintain a tight seal for years. So I've discovered.
Once I have rummaged in the freezer depths and pillaged the food contents, when I get to those birds, I know I must get to the supermarket. The process fills me with dread. When I get to the birds, a bubble of anxiety the size of the Hindenburg balloons inside my chest. For one thing, each time I'm reminded that I'm committing a crime by keeping my entombed feathered friends. Akin to knowing that one has cheated on one's income tax (something I would never do), one lives with the fear of getting caught. The other thing is that I know it will take me hours to go shopping and cost me a sheik's ransom before I'm done. I am a package reader and examiner of ethnic foods, much like I examine the feathers, eyes and feet of dead birds. It takes me ages to get through the market. If you go with me and are in a hurry, forget it. But, I can tell you what's in Hoisin sauce and how many calories there are in a tablespoon.
After one of my mega shop expeditions, I employ measures to correct the physical effects of the attendant panic attack. To calm the chest pain, palpitations and hyperventilations I reward myself. Some might resort to a handful of Xanax in cases like this, but I take photographs. This time, I took the longer, scenic route home in the hopes of finding photographic subjects and was handsomely remunerated by nature, the greatest recompenser.
With a full load of perishables and frozen foods, I was whizzing homeward when I saw what looked at first glance like a human body on the shore. The day before, tragically a local man had fallen out of his boat and was missing, so this wasn't a ridiculous notion. A massive search by the Coast Guard, Marine Patrol and hundreds of neighbors was still underway. "Oh, God, it's Dick," I thought. I pulled the car over.
Dick was a clammer who spent his life on the banks of the Kennebec River. A well known character about town, he was a man of opinions and yarns. Better than most, he knew the shores, the mud flats, marshes and waters where the river meets the Atlantic. But something went terribly wrong. His boat was found running in circles and nearly out of gas without him. It's been days now, and he hasn't been found. No declarations have been made, but in our hearts we all know he's not coming back. His body will probably never be found. Dick's story will be told without a real ending. As much as it would have been awful to be the one who found him, it would have been okay to give closure to the family he left behind. They will probably always live without explanation which we humans rarely suffer well.
Harp seals live where it's colored purple.
Harp seals live in the Arctic circle on the Labrador front. They are pagofilic, or "ice loving." They spend most of their lives on pack ice where they give birth to their young. Prior to 1994, they were virtually unknown on the coast of Maine. Since 1990, their range has been inching southward. Harp seals summer in the Arctic and winter in Newfoundland, but increasingly are seen as far south as North Carolina. It's not rare to see them between December and April in Maine. They are usually seen on shore ledges in coves and harbors. This year, from Maine to North Carolina, a hundred sightings have been reported, three times the number of previous years. In Maine, there have been forty reported, which is double that of last year.
The Harp seal in these photographs is an adult (I'm guessing male) called a "white-coat" at this phase of its life. Adults are not seen as often as juveniles. From birth to about 14 months, they are called "beaters," for the erratic way that they swim. They do not develop the distinctive, lyre harp pattern on the back until after they are a year old. The first Harp seal I ever saw was on April 6, 2009, a "beater," here in Phippsburg.
Why these seals are showing up here more frequently is not known. There is speculation that diminishing habitat - melting pack ice, may be a factor. They might be looking for more places to ice out to whelp pups. Reduced populations of the fish they eat may be another reason. Harp seals are common in their normal range, so less ice for them to occupy results in too many of them for the habitat. There have been fluctuations in pack ice before, but never as dramatically as seen in the past two decades. These factors are only speculative to date, as none of these possible causes have been proved. Scientists continue to gather data toward answering this question. But, for now, what goes on in the minds and hearts of a these animals can only be guessed.
I for one, have another idea. In our need for closures and explanations of events without real answers, it serves as well as any. I think Harp seals on the coast of Maine may be reincarnations. My sister, who adored seals, died the first week in April thirteen years ago. Her's also remains an unexplained death. I associate seals not only with her, but in particular, the Harp seal with her death. And again, there is another Harp seal, a great strapping bull, just like Dick who was a strapping, rugged man who loved the sea.
This post is in memory of my sister, Piper Lee Riley, and Richard, "Dickey" Lemont.
Thanks for some of the information to:
Maine College Of The Atlantic
University Of New England
Marine Mammal Rescue, Maine Department Of Marine Resources
Increase In Extralimital Records Of Harp Seals In Maine, Stevick, P.J. and Fernald, T.W., Northeastern Naturalist 5(1): 75-82