On this idyllic afternoon, our friend Freckles was lounging on Treasure Island–flanked, as usual, by his harem and seal pups of all ages. Easy living for his pinniped pod. Until, that is, the tides rolled in.
The waves churned and slammed against the rocks, scooping pinnipeds from their resting place and tossing them into the sea. Whoosh, the surf grass vanished. Saltwater swirled and frothed, and then submerged the tidal pools. Large portions of the island disappeared underwater.
But good ol’ Freckles, he remained as nonplussed as ever. Instinct, no doubt, enjoined by learned wisdom.
In a series of calm, deliberate moves, he nudged his offspring to higher ground. “Tuck your fins,” he seemed to say, “Lift your chin and move that tail! We’ll ride out this storm together, and when the waters recede again, we can rest.”
If you’re staring out to sea, you might miss the harbor seals hauling out on the island. They blend in, until your eyes adjust. They’re wary, until and unless you approach their habitat with a quiet reverence. Then, and only then, you’ll notice the harbor seal pup, propelling its bulky form across the rocks at mid-tide.
It rests for a while on a silky patch of surf grass–a nap mat that expands and contracts with the tides.
Mammal and mammal, you breathe together the salty mist, watching and learning from each other. In that moment–or maybe later, when you’ve had time to reflect–you realize just how sacred and special these encounters really are. And that’s when your stories begin to take shape.
All that to say: I’m turning the page on the book I’d originally planned to write about Freckles. I’m not yet sure how this new chapter might unfold, but I’m ready to go exploring…
This charming little enclave was a well-intentioned, but perhaps shortsighted, gift to the people of San Diego, back in 1931. In funding this project, Ellen Browning Scripps brought a personal dream to fruition: a protected beach for children, the elderly, and “those handicapped in life’s game.”
Ellen didn’t own the property, mind you. She just laid out the cash for the 330-foot, crescent-shaped concrete wall that hugs the rocky shoreline.
Then as now, visitors strolled the length of the breakwater, snapping photos of the sweeping panoramic views and peeking into the tide pools below [video].
Years passed. Slowly but surely, the once-pristine swimming hole was filled with drifting sand.
It eventually transformed itself into an idyllic hangout…for harbor seals.
The horseshoe-shaped inlet (also known as Casa Beach) is perfectly suited to the pinniped lifestyle. They bask in year-round sunshine, mate, and give swimming lessons to their newborn pups.
Check out the scene, in this live-action video.
Seal pups are born in the sand, nurse within minutes, and take their first swimming lessons within a few hours.
Over the next few weeks, they’ll lose their downy fur and gain their independence.
But in the meantime, the breakwater helps protect them from predators and turbulent seas.
In this peaceable kingdom, sea birds and marine mammals find ways to co-exist, with only an occasional squabble.
No surprise, the harbor seal pups are a major draw. In fact, they helped turn Children’s Beach into a major tourist attraction.
Just look at this mama seal being shadowed by her pup. Postcard material, don’t you think? Hashtag: #HarborSealsofInstagram
But not everyone sees these changes as a good thing. Locals pinch their noses and point to the mess. No, not the half-eaten sandwiches and disposable diapers, buried in the sand by thoughtless visitors. Seal poop, plopped on the rocks and in the water. “It leaves behind an ungodly stench,” business owners harrumph, especially in the summer.
Fishermen are afraid of losing out to the seals, who forage along this increasingly depleted coastline.
And swimmers complain that they’re coming face-to-muzzle with playful (or unhappy) pinnipeds. In a territorial battle, both parties can be aggressive and unpredictable.
Deep dive: Should the beach be permanently designated as a marine mammal sanctuary, or should it be returned to its pristine (if man-made) state?
The controversy has landed in the courts, many times over. Strongly held views sometimes lead to violent skirmishes. It’s hard to accommodate everyone, but thanks to a recent ordinance, the pocket beach is off-limits to humans from Dec. 15 to May 15 (aka pupping season)–mainly in response to documented cases of seal harassment.
The Coastal Commission sided with city politicians, all of whom were mainly concerned that mama harbor seals might get frightened during pupping season and “flush” (stampede) into the water. Newborn seals get trampled, or separated in the shuffle. There’s perhaps nothing more wrenching than a frantic, hungry baby that’s crying for its mama.
Some people think humans and pinnipeds should be able to interact with one another in peace. With respect to that viewpoint, the adjacent beach is open to the public, all year long. Since harbor seals also frequent this beach, warning signs are posted at the entrance and on the steps leading down to the water.
But “shared use” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.
(I’m told that this beach is staffed by park rangers and lifeguards. But I didn’t see anyone patrolling the area.)
Some people would be happier if the harbor seals never set their flippers on Children’s Pool Beach, ever again. But I have a feeling they’re swimming against the tide.
P.S. I took these photographs on the seawall and walkways that surround Children’s Pool, and (where noted) above the adjacent beach. I used a zoom lens, and at no time did I ever venture close to the harbor seals.
Life isn’t a pailful of herring, you know. Not for Freckles the harbor seal, any more than it is for the rest of us.
Not for nothing does Freckles have this spindle-shaped sleekness. He forages the Pacific Ocean for hours at a time every day, grabbing snacks on the go because he’s also got to keep an eye out for predators. Manmade dangers, too–like gill nets and ship propellers.
Freckles navigates rough waters every day, so no surprise! When he finally hauls ashore, he’s exhausted. But as leader of this pinniped posse, it also falls to Freckles to defend their onshore habitat.
You might be wondering: How does he manage?
Look deep into those liquid brown eyes, and you’ll find your answer. There’s wisdom in that sleepy-eyed gaze of his, not fear. He’s been around the tide pools a few times, our Freckles. He’s earned every one of those grey spots.
He’s not afraid to go nose-to-nose with his problems, but he also knows when and how to chill.
You’d never guess, for instance, that he’d just squared off with Clancy, the interloper up front. Once Freckles laid down the ground rules, he nestled himself into the algae-softened rocks again, angled strategically between his long time friends and this brazen newcomer. Peaceable kingdom, restored.
That’s how Freckles rolls. He just takes care of business, tra la la, and then settles in for another nap.
We could all take some cues from Freckles, now couldn’t we? Tuned in, blissed out…finding our happy place, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.