On the foggiest mornings, we couldn’t quite tell when the sun rose. My fellow island caretaker and I couldn’t see the outhouse from our cabin, just a hundred feet away, or even gauge how high the tide was, just thirty feet from our door. Regardless of how warm and sunny it had been the day before, the fog brought raw dampness to everything, even if it was bundled, boxed, or stored behind closed doors. Our tiny Jøtul woodstove, even during the peak of summer, was our favorite appliance in our often damp island home. Nature has a way of reminding us of the difference between needs and luxuries, of comforts and risks, of realities and illusions.
On these foggy mornings, while all we could see was gray and all we could feel was damp, we could hear sounds heard only in these specific conditions--sounds that contrasted starkly with the distant rumble of lobster boat engines: the howling of wild dogs. On this two-mile long, treeless Maine island, where we were only one of two resident mammal species, the sounds appeared to originate simultaneously from everywhere and nowhere. The howling of many individuals sounded like a hybrid between the nocturnal yips and howls of coyotes and the deep, endless cries of wolves. These howls, we knew, couldn’t originate from canines given the absence of dogs in this part of the Atlantic, but we had never heard such eerie, doglike sounds on the open ocean before.
A few mornings were clear and sunny, and we did not hear those eerie howls. As if awoken from a dream, we wondered if we had really heard them. Then there was another gray and damp morning. We lit the fire in our woodstove as usual, waiting and wondering. We heard the distant howling again, so I stood outside on the pier, warm mug in hand, wool sweater wrapped around me as a boundary from the damp and dire, tiny beads of water collecting on the wisps of my unkempt hair. The sounds were definitely coming from the east—even further into the Atlantic Ocean than our island home.
We guessed the sounds were coming from seals; they were the only likely culprit. We also knew that there was a large ledge just half a mile further east of our island with a reputation for hosting seals. When the fog dissipated later in the morning, and after we finished our maintenance work for the island’s trails, we paddled out of our protected cove in our borrowed tandem sea kayak, headed east toward the ledges. The profile of the ledges shifted as we drew nearer; we realized the rocks were covered in families of harbor seals and, the less common, gray seals. The illusion of the mysterious sounds came into focus. We stopped paddling just a few hundred yards from the ledges, not wanting to disturb the families with young pups enjoying the warm sun on the rocks. As we rocked decidedly side-to-side, floating over the two-foot waves, we watched the seals, wondering if they would howl for us here.
Hardly a minute had passed while we sat watching the seals before the largest seals on the ledges, the bulls, slipped into the water, suddenly invisible beneath the sea. Shifting uncomfortably, the remaining mothers and occasional pups kept their large, dark eyes on us. Slowly, we began paddling backward. The bull harbor seals surfaced for air just twenty feet from the ledges, watching us. A couple bull gray seals followed suit, a little closer. Continuing to paddle backwards, we wondered where all the other bull seals we had seen enter the water were now—and what they were doing. Suddenly, one of the gray seals came up for air halfway between us and the ledges—a seemingly impossible distance to swim in mere seconds. We turned our boat around and began paddling home at our usual pace, realizing the seals were not pleased with our presence.
Not six strokes closer to home, we jumped in our seats as we heard the Darth Vader-like watery breath of a seal directly behind us. We looked in time to see the pair of giant black, hauntingly empty eyes two feet from the stern of our kayak. Knowing his eyes were perfectly designed to hunt mackerel in the dark depths of the sea, we wondered how he perceived us in the sunlight. He rolled nose first into the water. We watched his shining dark back roll and roll and roll behind him; he must have been ten feet long, perhaps six hundred pounds, and certainly more massive than us in our kayak. A second gray did the same on the other side of our stern. We paddled faster. Ten seconds later, they emerged again, staring, with jarringly abrupt breaths reminiscent of waves breaking on an outer shoal. Even though we paddled as hard and fast as we could (somehow in-sync) we knew we could never paddle faster than a seal could swim, and that a seal could easily upset our vessel if it desired. Nonetheless, we kept paddling.
The smaller—if that word could even apply—of the two seals turned back only once we were halfway between the ledges and our island. The other continued to breathe loudly, stare, roll over, and swim beside and beneath our boat; staring us down with those black, watery eyes all the way back to the mouth of our protected island cove. He waited here to see if we would keep away from his family and his home. Only once we reached the float where we tied our kayak, arms heavy and exhausted, did we finally see him swim east toward the ledges.
In nature, an explanation always lies behind an illusion. Truly understanding that illusion, however, often requires us to take risks, a luxury in itself. The seals left the comfort of their sunny ledge to meet us, and we left the comfort of our warm cabin to meet them. The risks we each took to understand the illusion of sound or threat of the other was a survival strategy for the seal, yet a luxury for us humans in our drive to understand. After our encounter with that bull gray seal, the howls no longer reminded me of my human quest to discover and name, but instead of the fragility and persistence of life on this planet—mine as well as the seals’.
Photos by Author
Hazel Stark is Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Maine Outdoor School, L3C. She holds a BA in Human Ecology and an MS in Resource Management and Conservation. She is passionate about getting people of all ages outside and engaged in learning about the intersection between human and natural systems. In her off-time, you might find her somewhere in the woods of Downeast Maine with a camera and journal, crafting new posts for her blog, Partridge, Pine, and Peavey.