This spring and early summer I had some profound experiences concerning three elephant seals that on different occasions came to a local beach to undertake a process known as catastrophic molting. Elephant seals at different times in the spring and summer (generally juveniles first, followed by adult females, and then adult males) will come up onto sandy beaches to start the molting process that lasts about a month. It’s called catastrophic molting because elephant seals lose all their fur and first layer of skin in a very short period of time compared to other seals and sea lions that lose their fur gradually over a longer period of time. Elephant seals will lose weight, as they are generally not eating while they are molting, and can get lesions and subsequent infections. As a result they can look quite sickly drawing concern by those unaware of the natural process that is taking place. Each seal during its time spent on the local beach this spring and summer shared insightful messages from the sea.
Message One – Community and Connection: Myself and other local residents randomly came together to form an informal volunteer group to maintain a caution-tape perimeter with educational signage around the elephant seals to afford them protection while they were on the beach. This became an exercise of dedication and patience, as we came to the beach each day to monitor the seal and move the perimeter according to the seal’s movements, sometimes visiting four or more times a day and staying long hours to provide education and public outreach. At times when the public took offence to and undermined our efforts because their beach access and beach use was temporarily restricted in a small area, we silently wished for the seal to move on and find another less public beach.
This is when resilience was needed the most. But had those elephant seals never touched the sands of our local beach, I may never have met and connected with these wonderful people living in my community who were instant friends. We were brought together for a common purpose – to protect the seals during their vulnerable, annual life process, and we bonded from our common love, care and concern for the precious marine wildlife we were blessed to interact with in this way.
Message Two – Compassion and Understanding: Upon learning about the presence of an elephant seal on a local beach, naturally people were interested and flocked to the area as if it were a zoo. There were some good intentioned but misinformed actions by concerned members of the public that included throwing water on the seal, placing a blanket on it and trying to feed it watermelon. For others it was all about trying to get as close to the seal as possible, including staging toddlers in front of the seal for the perfect social media post – a dangerous proposition. Unfortunately there was worse, as drunken and sober individuals walked through the flagged perimeter, let their dogs come nose to nose with the seal, threw things and kicked sand at it, or poked it with a stick. Many times these were the actions of parents modeling this behaviour in front of their young children.
At the core of my response to learning or sometimes witnessing these events, my heart hurt and cried, but at the surface in the moment there was disbelief, frustration, and disappointment. It was so quick and easy to polarize the events in haste ‘them’ and us and to have thoughts along the lines of ‘How ignorant, careless, disrespectful and cruel of them’. But polarizing matters and having thoughts like these do not make things better and do not resolve things.
I began to question when our attitudes and behaviours differ from those of others and when trying to appeal to others through gentle reasoning is unsuccessful, how do we accept what is and that differences may remain as they are? Having a sense of compassion and a willingness to try to understand where others may have been to be showing up the way they are now is a first step. But it’s a hard first step when the welfare of an animal, basically defenseless and vulnerable, is at risk. I’m still processing all of this and extend my deepest gratitude to the members of the public that contributed to the protection of the elephant seals and showed such deep respect for these amazing animals.
Message Three – Vulnerability and Self-Nurture: In witnessing and learning more about what elephant seals go through during their catastrophic molt, I was acutely aware of how vulnerable they are during this time – not eating while their energy levels decline, restricted on land for a month if they don’t venture into the water during this time (they normally spend 8-10 months at sea and 90% of that time is underwater), and likely very physically uncomfortable.
I also witnessed their behaviours that seemed to be based in self-nurturing – giving themselves what they needed during this intense, transitional time. They haul out on sandy beaches where they can flip sand onto their bodies to cool down or move down to the waterline to put a flipper or two in the water to achieve the same. They may nestle against logs for warmth or small rocks to rub and scratch their head and body. And they rest, a lot!
How often are we ourselves going through some intense event in life but instead of nurturing ourselves we push through it, harder and faster to get to the other side? Why don’t we give ourselves what we need? Conserve energy, rest, provide warmth, do things that provide calm and relief. I vow to honor real nature and nurture myself when my body needs it whether it is because of sickness or a stressful event in my life. Will you?
With deep gratitude to the three elephant seals that offered these messages and enhanced my sense of purpose, as each day I sprang out of bed to walk down to the beach and check the perimeter tape and the location and condition of each seal while it graced our local beach. In love and protection of nature’s beauty and wisdom!