Ebb tide. My calendar is packed, but I head down to the beach anyway, camera in tow.
At high tide, Goff Island is mostly underwater. The ocean heaves and swells, bursting into plumes of frothy waves as it crashes against its rocky edges. But when the water recedes again, hidden treasures come into view. I want to see them, name them, learn how these tiny creatures navigate their pocket-shaped homes.
Sunlight pierces the murky tide pools, spotlighting their strange and beautiful inhabitants. Sea anemones flourish in these underwater gardens, as do sea lettuces and coralline algae.
Snails graze on gently swaying seaweed, blissfully unaware of the predators that lurk in narrow crevasses, waiting for the just-right moment to pounce.
Shell fragments bear silent testimony to this oft-repeated drama, as do the oxygen bubbles, slowly rising to the surface. Here, a mirror image of the universe itself: a microcosm of constant change and perpetual motion, in which everything is interconnected.
I straddle the channel where the harbor seals haul out at mid-tide, pivot toward the shoreline and refocus.
Such an aha moment, to see the shoreline from the pinnipeds’ vantage point!
I don’t suppose the jagged rocks are any big deal—if you’re cushioned with blubber, that is.
But hmmm…Where do the tide pool creatures go, when they’re displaced at mid-tide by these larger animals? We’re dealing with water damage at my house, so I’ll have to save that question for another day.
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.
Everyday I see or hear something that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack of light. It was what I was born for — to look, to listen,
to lose myself inside this soft world — to instruct myself over and over
in joy, and acclamation. Nor am I talking about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful, the very extravagant — but of the ordinary, the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations. Oh, good scholar, I say to myself, how can you help
but grow wise with such teachings as these — the untrimmable light
of the world, the ocean’s shine, the prayers that are made out of grass?
This is my contribution to the Art Challenge of the Month, Rituals and Routines. Want to join us? The rules are simple: “Draw, paint, photo shoot, embroider, install, write, muse …. any discipline is welcome. Over the weekend of March 18-19, come and announce here that you have posted.”
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.
On my way to Goff Island yesterday, I happened upon a family reunion. Tourists, probably, drinking in the winter sunshine after savoring a picnic lunch. The women wore modest clothes and hijabs, and the men wore ankle-length, cotton robes. While the younger children built sand castles, replete with fancy turrets, a teenaged boy –positioned at a distance from his group–dug through the sand, examining and discarding tiny seashell fragments.
I lifted my sunglasses, smiled and waved. They waved back, generous smiles spread across open faces.
I thought I’d read the tide tables right, but Nature keeps her own timetable, doesn’t she? The Island was mostly submerged, so the harbor seals hadn’t yet hauled themselves onto the rocks where they typically congregate.
The ocean heaved and frothed. Seaweed floated in swirling eddies. But while I sensed the seals’ presence, I didn’t see any bobbing heads.
In the sheltered cove, where the turquoise waters deposit their treasures, I found a pearly white seashell–exquisitely shaped, perfectly whole.
I wandered toward the group of children, seashell cradled in my palm; and when I reached the spot where the older boy knelt, I slowly opened my hand.
I saw in his face a kindred soul, someone for whom simple things oftentimes bring about the greatest joy.
I spread my fingers wide, and the seashell spiraled downward. It landed gently in the boy’s lap, as if it were meant to be there, all along.
“Thank you,” he said softly, in beautifully accented English.
You’re so welcome, I thought, but I let my heart do the talking.
It was a quick exchange, no fanfare or fancy wrappings, but it felt to me like a Christmas blessing.
I went down to the beach again yesterday–after the tides receded, when the harbor seals typically sun themselves on the rocky shores of Goff Island Cove. It was a hallmark day: the 7th and next-to-last chemo treatment for my friend on the East Coast. Same as always, she was counting me to send pictures and videos, to help get her through the final weeks of that grueling regimen.
In the same way that I look to the skies for hummingbirds, she scans the ocean for seals. They are her spirit animals, harbingers of comfort and hope. No way would I ever want to disappoint her! That’s why, over the course of her many treatments, I’ve observed very closely “our” seal family’s habits and habitat. I know, from watching them and observing the tides, when they’re most likely to appear. They’ve become very comfortable with my presence; I call some of them by name. They’ve always revealed themselves to me, even when they hide from others. But yesterday…even before I descended the wooden stairs that lead into to the cove, I sensed that they weren’t there.
I blinked hard in the strong sunlight…didn’t see them on the rocks. I scanned the open water…no bobbing heads.Nature has her own, mysterious ways. She doesn’t operate on our timelines. I know and respect all of that. And still, I struggled against a rising panic. How could I explain to my friend that the seals hadn’t shown themselves–on a chemo day, of all days?
Tourists came and went, snapping selfies as they climbed all over the jagged rocks where the seals usually chill, calling out to each other in loud, jolting voices that would surely send the most habituated sea life into hiding. I watched an elderly couple explore the cove, clinging tight to one another as they bent over the tide pools, whispering excitedly about sea anemone, hermit crabs and shells. They were Eastern European, I think, from the sounds of their broken English. When they approached the rocks where I stood, I introduced myself. We used gestures and simple sentences to communicate, as new friends do. Quietly, because we shared a reverence for that space. When I said something about the “seals,” their eyes lit up. With huge smiles stretched across their sunburned faces, they pointed in unison to a distant rock formation, surrounded by water.
Here it is, a place they call Treasure Island.
And there they were: Freckles and Friends, sprawled on the rocks in the afternoon sun. Beyond the reach of any human beings, and almost beyond the reach of my little bridge camera. Snoozing, as seals do, after they’ve eaten a large meal and nap time stretches in front of them, unimpeded by predators and ocean surges.
A young seal was nestled into a patch of surf grass, at the base of the rocks.
The baby seal was wandering off by himself, as is his wont.
The oldest male, Freckles, was flanked on all sides by friends, all of whom were camouflaged by the mounded rocks that shielded them from the glaring sun.
Such a relief, to see them there, safe and sound…and, well, present. Such a pleasure, to send photos to my friend! Videos, too, like this one.
I’m reminded once again, of the good that shows itself when we hold out hope in the face of doubt. This is what it means to “get by with a little help from our friends.” This is what it means to keep the faith.