Monday, April 11, 2011

Reincarnation And The Science Of Connection Or Just Another Harp Seal

Harp Seal, Phippsburg, Maine
Harp or "Saddle" seal, male April 9, 2011 Phippsburg, MaineHarp Seal, Phippsburg, Mainen Soaking up the sun on the Kennebec River, Phippsburg, Maine

Harp seal basking in the spring sun, April 9, 2011 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


  1. A very sad but lovely tribute,to both,and well
    put.I didn't know your sister but I'm sure I would have liked her.
    Love the harp seal photos(have I ever said I didn't like any photos ?)I think not.
    Onward and upward,Robin.

  2. Thank you, bmc. It's a hard subject, even harder when you know the people.

  3. Robin, The loss of a loved one, close friend, or even a well thought of "character" seems a little less difficult when I relate it in the context of your message. A harp seal is still on my wish list; now it's on there for many reasons.

    Nice. AnnieO

  4. Sorry for your loss--it has to be very hard if its unexplained...I know a man name Dave LaMont he owns a super rustic cabin in Colorado and he so graciously allowed me and my sister to spend a couple days there 2 yrs ago. A wonderful memory I will cherish the rest of my years.
    I had a hummingbird in my freezer when I left my husband...I wonder what he thought when he found it..
    Why dont you bury your dead ones...Say a few words hang a windchime for each one and let their spirits fly free--

  5. Annie, thank you. Word has it that seal is hanging around still in the area where I saw it. If you can get down here.......
    Sondra, lovely idea. As it turns out, I was sent an e mail by someone licensed to have them who will turn them over the Bowdoin College ornithology department. We are making the deal this weekend. I feel good about that. Poor little hummingbird is what I've got to say on the other. Too bad you didn't leave a dead rat for your husband. Oh, that was cruel!
    Thank you both for reading and commenting.It means the world to me. :)

  6. Robin:

    Your piece about harp seals, Dickie, and your sister was very thoughtful and moving. I don't know if you've ever heard Gray Seals singing but go on line and find the sound - it's amazing.

    Thank you.

    Now, about those pesky birds and your forthcoming time in prison! Donate them regularly to Bowdoin College. Nat Wheelwright teaches ornithology as well as other courses. He can make good use of the birds and they will end up in the collection. And you won't end up in jail. The feds are overly stupid about this, even in financially stressed times. So be sure to protect yourself!

    I haven't seen a Harp Seal in Phippsburg, I guess living there gives you all the fun.

    We'll be at Morse Mountain this weekend and I could pick up the birds if you like. Then you'd really be fault free in the USFWS eyes, at least until you touch another dead bird!

    Best, Peter

  7. Concider the deal sealed, Peter. it would be my pleasure to relinquish them in this way to those who would appreciate them. And thank you for the compliments and read. Yes, living down here on the end of this pennisula does have its rewards.

  8. OMG!!! What a seal. Definitely a Spirit.

  9. Oh my god, beautiful or what! I noticed that someone in Nogales, Arizona is not getting your blog. Could you do something about that?

  10. Terrific! What a magnificent animal! I can see why it must have given you a start though. I am feeling very sad about Dicky. He helped me a couple of times and was such a friendly person. It seems wrong to go about my usual day when so many people are hurting from the multiple events of last Thursday/Friday.

  11. I feel sad for Dick and hope by some miracle he may arrive home safely. As for the birds in your freezer...say a prayer and bury them in your beautiful garden. I never saw a Harp seal before, only the gray seals. The Harp seal wins the beauty contest!

  12. Hg, thank you. Dick's apparent death is so sad, so senseless. And maybe he will turn up alive. Everyone hopes so. The most common seals here are Harbor seals. They win the cute contest in my book. Grey seals are the second most common, big homely slugs if you ask me. Then Hooded and Harps, both very uncommon here. I've never seen a Hooded seal, but now have two Harps to my name. So........I'll keep looking along the shorelines, for everybody. :( Thanks for the read and comments.

  13. Kristen Lindquist commented on your note "Reincarnation And The Science Of Connection Or Just Another Harp Seal".
    Kristen wrote: "Lovely piece, Robin."

  14. John B. Skroski commented on your note "Reincarnation And The Science Of Connection Or Just Another Harp Seal".
    John wrote: "Great shot!"

  15. Amazing seal photos~ a heartwarming story, thanks for sharing, Linda ~ greetings from Maine as well :)

  16. Another great article- very sad about Dick and of course, your sister. I know the pain of losing a loved one really never goes away does it? Thanks for sharing your photos of the harp seal- you know how I LOVE seals!!! All kinds!
    Ms. Boo

  17. Boo, John and Linda, thank you very much for viewing, reading and taking the time to comment. It means a great deal to me. And yes, losing people is as bad as it gets on this planet, just about. It never does go away, especially if it's unexplained. Here's to the seals.


  19. LINDA, THANK YOU!But seriously, folks. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  20. Fantastic photo, Robin! A picture of unreserved and guiltfree hedonism! So when I read your story I wasn't prepared for the sad ending. Sadly unexplained death provides no closure.

  21. Thanks, Hilke. I guess that's what a writer in part hopes for, to build some parallel experience for the reader of the event being described.

  22. Thanks for sharing Robin...saw two seals just off head beach a few days ago. Thought it was kind of early? Must be at Popham as well.

    Enjoy your day!

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