Seaweed and Seals
As you know, if you read to be a pilgrim, mid-to-late winter we head to the coast to fill seven or eight small sacks with seaweed. Our gathering place, the Patiti Point beach just south of the Timaru township, a reliable source – bull kelp mainly.
Last year’s harvest sun and wind dried to a crisp; this year’s rain soaked, leather-supple straps oozing slippery slimes and the smell peculiar to seaweed decomposition: already well on their way to feeding our vegetable garden’s microorganisms, who, in their turn, will release the trace minerals and other nutrients the plants need.
We’d not long started gathering seaweed when I spotted a juvenile seal a few metres away. It had to raise its head to look at us for me to be sure that I was looking at a seal and not dead wood that had got washed up onto the beach, still damp from sea water. This was a first – in all the years we’d been coming here we’d never seen a seal.
A little later, a cyclist stopped, looking down at us from a walking and cycling path at the top of a low bank at the back edge of the sandy beach. “Seals,” he said, pointing close by to a flat, grassy area at the side of the path. I thanked him, looking in the direction of the one on the beach to indicate that we knew to look out for seals. Not that we’d spied the two juveniles on the bank, soaking up the sun’s heat on a hot, still late morning in winter – barely more than pups.
We moved quietly past the one on the beach. Then we realised, from the corrugated outline of the seal’s ribcage as it lay on its side, and the dull coat, in stark contrast to the oily glimmer of the other two, that this seal had come onto the beach to die.
Half-an-hour later the cyclist returned, stopped alongside the two juveniles and used the side of his bike to startle them and shoo them down the bank. I felt startled myself. Their on-land flipper flops and slug bodies slithering them seaward. At the risk of anthropomorphising: a look of fright at every backward glance towards the bulky, predatory presence of the man and his bike. And then they dived into the waves and disappeared. So much for thinking, earlier, that concern for their welfare extended to cautioning us against disturbing the seals.
Makes you wonder whether, down the track, less than positive encounters with humans turns seal pups and juveniles, when full-grown, into growly barkers who perceive humans as quite a threat.
Not that the big fella that opened jaws wide and gave a loud bark not more than a few centimetres from June’s face needed any excuses! A couple of months ago, walking around the entire Kaikoura Peninsula via the rocky shore (made possible by the uplift of the sea floor created during the earthquake of 2016), we had to skirt around the many seals basking on rocks – like us, they were making the most of an unseasonably hot, calm day at autumn’s end.
A couple or so hours into our trek, June spied an open-ended cave which, to all appearances, would allow us to avoid having to get very close to several adult fur seals, in the process committing the “no-no” of walking between some of them and the sea. June was about to emerge at the far end of the cave when the guardian of the cave got us backtracking fast. “I don’t know who got the biggest fright!” she said.
Nothing for it but to go back to clambering over the rocks. What was it I heard someone say recently? “Seals can move fast, especially over rocks.” At one point I had to stride over a gap in the rocks, only to look around to see June, with her shorter legs, having to drop down a metre and then climb out the other side. But we triggered no more than a couple of half-hearted barks – they must have viewed the way we behaved near them as sufficiently low threat after all.
We tried to get a glimpse of the “Who goes there?” seal. Even training the binoculars on the area didn’t help. No doubt sprawled out on the grass behind the flax bushes at our intended exit point from the cave. Farther on around the Peninsula we saw, out in the open, where seals had been resting on the grass above the rocky shore: their imprints looking like someone had mixed Roundup with oil and randomly sprayed patches of grass.
Once we’d collected enough seaweed from the beach at Patiti Point, I went over to the brown grass that marked where the two young ones had been resting before the cyclist spooked them. Rubbing a hand over the patch transferred an oily residue to my fingers and palm; I imagine it’s the oils the seals exude that kill off the grass.
I walked back along the beach, our seaweed and seals adventure all but complete, all that remained – a few farewell words to the dying seal. Dead still until I spoke, then the tail flipppers, which were facing in my direction, did two weak flaps. Objectively valid or not, I like to think we made a connection at some level.