Saving Seals

Illustration by Michael McCurdy
Illustration by Michael McCurdy

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“WITH 9/11, the blessed countdown for the Rapture has begun,” my neighbor George informed me almost casually.

He caught me off guard. After decades of giddily anticipating the end of the world and getting no response from me, most of the true believers in my family have stopped asking if I’m ready to be swept up in the Second Coming. Plus, this was the last place I expected to be proselytized. George and I sat perched on driftwood, keeping watch over a seal pup that had hauled up onto our backyard Salish Sea beach. Because most Seattle city beaches are barricaded by concrete sea walls, these natural beaches are precious to harbor seals, a place where they can give birth, nurse, rest. Every spring through September, mother seals leave their pups here while they fish. Staying the official one hundred yards away as required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, we neighbors keep watch on the vulnerable pups in shifts of usually four hours. It’s a startling stretch of time together with people we usually whiz past in our busy lives.

“Hmmmmm,” I answered in a whisper, hoping that my neighbor would lapse into the companionable silence we usually enjoy together while seal sitting, as we call our beach communion. “Hand me the binoculars, will you?”

This pup was about two feet long, round and robust, its speckled fur camouflaged against the rocky beach. It was breathing regularly, with no yellow discharge from its mouth or nose — all good signs, according to Kristin Wilkinson, the expert on marine mammal strandings from NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) who gave us our training. We didn’t see any wounds, such as orca bites, propeller gashes, or bullet holes. But he could have suffered some internal injuries. Only careful observation and time would reveal his fate. If the pup is injured or doesn’t leave the beach after forty-eight hours, we call NOAA, which may send someone to remove it to a rehab shelter for treatment. Though Washington State has a thriving seal population, 50 percent of juveniles do not survive their first year, and every seal season we neighbors witness at least one or two seal pup deaths.

George and I were sitting second shift, after Mike, our “poet laureate of seals,” and Suzanne, a labor and delivery nurse who is particularly adept at reading the newborn seal’s body language. Can he lift flippers and head in the agile “banana position” to scan for predators and mother? There are twenty-four of us who patrol several beaches. We keep a phone tree and Internet contact, and when someone spots a lone pup, whoever is available heads out to keep watch. Our most important job as seal sitters is to politely shoo dogs and overly curious people away from the pup, partly because diseases are communicable among the three species. We also chat with other neighbors and passersby, and educate them in seal etiquette. If the mother returns and finds her pup surrounded by too much human activity, she may abandon her baby.

“This pup looks plump and healthy, don’t you think?” I asked George in a whisper.

“I sure hope so,” he murmured.

Suddenly, a foghorn moaned in baritone blasts, and the seal pup shuddered. He lifted his head, his black eyes huge, his tiny ear slits opened wide, listening.

“That’s how it’ll happen, you know,” George said quietly. There was a note of triumph in his tone. “The trumpets will sound, and we’ll be lifted up far away from here.”

For a moment I considered not engaging in this loopy, no-exit dialogue. But we had a lot of time and a seal pup on our hands.

It was April, and perhaps Passover and Easter were on my neighbor’s mind. After a particularly chill and rain-soaked winter, spring seemed a resurrection with its blizzards of cherry blossoms along our boardwalk, its tulip trees and bursting purple and scarlet rhododendron bushes. “Listen, George” I began. “Why are you so . . . well . . . cheerful about the end of the Earth?”

This gave him a moment’s pause. Then he said, with some chagrin, “You can’t blame us born-agains for wanting at last to get our heavenly rewards. We’ve waited thousands of years.”

His dark eyes flashed a familiar fire I’d seen in preachers’ faces at the summer tent revivals of my childhood when sinners dramatically fainted, either from the heat or the paroxysm of their inner demons “getting behind them.” It was always bewildering to witness usually strait-laced adults flail about speaking gibberish, and then transform again into perfectly upstanding and polite believers just in time for the potluck.

I will never forget Mrs. Whitdinger rising from her impressive fit on the dirt floor of the revival tent to politely serve up heavenly hash — that Southern concoction of lime jello, whipped cream, mandarin oranges, and miniature marshmallows. I figured repentance helped work up a good appetite.

As I watched our seal pup settle back into his vigilant scanning of the waves, his belly rising and falling in those deep drafts of breath that only the very young of any species seem to enjoy, I persisted, “Why would you want this world to end, George? What’s the hurry?”

I could see that my neighbor was now studying me as if I were the seal pup, as if he had already passed me in the slow sinner’s lane on the freeway to the Apocalypse. “The hurry is that right now we see signs and wonders proving that the End Times are upon us,” George insisted. “We’ve got holy wars, globalization, Israel’s military power, Islamic terrorists, and even global warming.” This last sign he pronounced brightly, as if our global climate was gleefully graduating into a hot time in the old world.

I wanted out of the conversation. I felt claustrophobic in the tight grip of my neighbor’s end-times intensity. Oddly, I wondered if my restlessness was like the anxiety fundamentalists seem to feel about the whole world, as if they are trapped by the original gravity of their sins. Perhaps to the Rapture hopefuls, the Earth’s fall into global warming signals that our world has become what they always suspected — hell, the “fire next time.” Perhaps their Rapture prophecy is a kind of biblical lullaby to calm their environmental terrors. As one of my family assured me, “There are no drowning polar bears and melting ice caps where I’m going.”

It struck me that being “raptured” out of this world trumped the insecurity of living and the surrender of dying. No bodily indignity. No suffering. One is simply whisked off with the fellowship of the believers, the Rapture gang, to a heavenly and just reward. In the twinkling of an eye, they say, the righteous will ascend, dropping golden dental work, nightgowns, and perhaps some spouses. Unless you count losing the Earth and billions of unfortunate sinners who cling to it, getting raptured is a blast. Who wouldn’t want to escape the prophesied plagues of locusts, frogs, and killer viruses, an Earth overwhelmed by tsunamis, volcanoes, and nomadic legions of the unsaved?

“Sandwich, George?” I rummaged in my backpack for a pimento cheese sandwich. Though I’ve backslid from my mother’s Southern Baptist religion, I still carry on her fabulous food rituals.

My neighbor shook his head. His hunger was spiritual. Not to be put off, he told me, “I’m afraid you’ll have a rough time of it here during the Tribulations.”

“Don’t you love any of us who will suffer in those tribulations?” I asked. “Those of us you leave behind?”

George took my arm a little too tightly. “But you could come with us, you know.” George was closing in, just as surely as the tide was rising, surf coming closer to our seal pup’s small, whiskered snout. I politely disengaged. Now I was a little worried. It had been twelve hours since the discovery of this pup. In a few more hours it would be high tide again. Where was the mother?

Excitedly George pulled his laptop out of his backpack.

He often brings his home office to the beach while seal sitting. We can tap into dozens of wireless haloes shimmering unseen around nearby apartments. “I’m sending you this link,” George said. “It’s the home page for the non-raptured.”

Squinting in the morning marine light, I could barely make out the computer screen, which read: “Inheriting from the Raptured.” A very official last will and testament followed: “Contact your saintly friends now. Offer to let them use the convenient form below to keep their fiscal assets from slipping into the hands of Satan’s One World Government agents.”

“But, George,” I protested, “this site isn’t serious.”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s joking,” George insisted, “it will still work.”

I saw that the will had blank signature lines marked “Infidel Witness #1″ and “Infidel Witness #2.” “Well, I suppose,” I suggested with a smile, “that we can ask some of the other seal sitters to witness this for us.”

But George was completely serious. Then I remembered I had seen his car boasting a new bumper sticker: “In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned.” I had wanted to tell him that I was going to get a new bumper sticker too: “In case of Rapture, can I have your car?”

Now here he was, my dear neighbor, actually signing me up to inherit his worldly possessions — his world.

I was strangely touched.

With a pang I realized that while some End-Timers may not have the stamina and constancy for compassion, for “suffering with,” many, like George and my family, feel real concern for the infidel loved ones they will abandon. And watching George’s expectant face, I reminded myself that his spiritual stewardship, like that of some other evangelicals, did include other species and the natural world. Not long before, George had built a floating platform for an injured pup so he could find sanctuary offshore while saltwater and sun healed his gash from a boat propeller. Anchored by another neighbor’s boat buoy, this “life raft” became a refuge for many other resting and nursing seals.

George has also helped me bury the pups who don’t survive each season. We were trained to bury them deep under beach sand so their bodies can nourish the whole ecosystem. Once we seal sitters had the sorrowful task of burying a pup as the mother swam back and forth in the surf, calling and cooing to her newborn to come back to her. The mother’s moans stay in my mind these many months later.

“Oh, look,” George exclaimed in a whisper and snapped shut his laptop. “He’s up!”

Our pup intently scanned the waves for his mother and the beach for predators. For the first time, he fixed his full attention on us. Through the detached intimacy of binoculars, I could see that his breathing had steadied and he was actually rolling over on his side into a more relaxed and natural position. As he lifted his front flipper up to scratch his whiskers, his huge eyes held mine with that unblinking gaze that is at once wild and very familiar. After all, seals are our mammal kin. In coastal cultures all over the world, they are said to be shape-shifters, selkies, shedding their seal skins onshore to become human, if only for a night, a nuptial, a haunting reverie.

George and I tracked the seal pup’s every move — and now there were many. Repeatedly, he lifted his head and hind flippers to scan the waves and beach, then scratched, scooted, rolled over, and gave a long, leisurely yawn.

If, over the hours spent hauled out, seals are protected by a discreetly distant circle of seal sitters, we’ve actually seen their initial wariness relax into deep naps. The seals know we are near, and because we do not approach they find some peace. And so do we. Even more than a service to wild animals, seal sitting is a refuge in a world polluted by busyness. How often are we humans privileged to watch an animal dream beside us? (Studies have shown that, like gray whales and gorillas and many other animals, seals do dream.) In the way that meditation can be an anchor for all action, our neighborhood seal watch is the ground of communal compassion.

Even when a sea gull nipped at his tail flukes, our pup barely stirred. Fast asleep, he was dreaming deep through the late-afternoon dissonance of commuter traffic, rap music, some schoolboys’ Frisbee contest. Was the pup certain his mother would return? Was George this sure of the Second Coming?

“George,” I suggested, “why don’t you take a break? Go join your family for supper.”

“Anytime now,” George murmured, “the mother will return. That’s my favorite part.”

And then I understood something about my neighbor and about myself. All of us know what it feels like to wait for someone to call, to finally come home, to recognize our love, to reunite with those of us who long for something more, something greater than ourselves. Maybe it will come in the night, in that twinkling of an eye. Maybe it will save us from a lonely beach.

As if in answer to our longing, a glossy head popped up far out in the waves. The seal pirouetted to find her pup on the beach. George and I sat absolutely still, hardly breathing. A soft cooing call from the mother. The pup fairly leapt up, flippers unfurling like wings. Flop, flop, flop, and then an undulant body-hop along beach stones as the pup inched toward the surf.

“Ah, you’re safe now, buddy,” George sighed, as the seal pup slipped into the waves and swam as fast as his tiny flippers could carry him back to his mother. There was tranquility in George’s face, a sweet calm that often comes from sitting on the beach all day with nothing to do but watch over a fellow creature. From our driftwood seat, we saw the two seals dive and disappear. Nearby, comic black-and-white harlequin ducks popped up in the waves. Even though our seal sitting was over, we didn’t move. A great blue heron swooped in with the caw of a dinosaur bird. How could this ancient bird fly with such huge wings? How did she escape extinction? Somehow the great blue had adapted beautifully.

The driftwood creaked slightly under our weight. It was a madrona log, its soft ruby bark peeling from years lost at sea. I surprised myself by going back to the subject I had worked so hard to avoid. I asked George, “What if we’re sitting here to make sure that there will be something left for our kids?”

He seemed to ponder this for a while. “You’re a really good neighbor, George,” I told him. “We would all miss you so much if you zipped up to heaven. We’d all say, ‘Well, there goes the neighborhood!'”

George took the compliment in stride. Along with seal sitting, he also participates in our neighborhood block watch. He is someone I might call upon in an emergency, unless, of course, that emergency was the Rapture.

“I’ll miss you,” George admitted, “and . . . and all this, too.”

“You know George,” I said softly, “I really want to be left behind.”

My neighbor looked at me thoughtfully and then fell quiet as we watched another harlequin float past, bright beak dripping a tiny fish. Happy, so happy in this moment. The great blue cawed hoarsely and stood on one leg in a fishing meditation. Wave after bright wave lapped our beach, and the spring sunset glowed on our faces. We sat in silence, listening to waves more ancient than our young, hasty species, more forgiving than our religions, more enduring. Rapture.

Brenda Peterson is the author of fifteen novels and nonfiction books, including, most recently, Animal Heart.


  1. Such a beautiful and moving account on so many different levels. It never ceases to amaze me how complicated our existence as a species has become and yet how quiet time, in nature, alone or with others, always brings me right back around to what is important – the sheer bliss of breathing, feeling, living – and the fact that I feel so blessed to bear witness to all the complexities, triumphs and tragedies of this planet and this life.

  2. It is rare to find a writer who can explore with grace the complex connectedness of all species. It is such a wide topic, difficult to speak about, yet so important at this stage in our evolution.

    Brenda Peterson’s exploration notes that connectedness is a good thing even when it is not particularly comfortable and/or with individuals or species we do not understand.

  3. Dear Friends,

    It we are going to save the seals, there will come a time, I suppose, when the people who care about biodiversity are going to speak out loudly and clearly about what it is that is actually threatening these animals.

    My greatest fear is of the silence that is continuing to engulf us. Too many people are refusing to participate in discussions of the real issues of our time.

    Perhaps I am mistaken is saying that no candidate for US President has so much as mentioned the human population growth issue, let alone discussed it openly. Leaders in the US are not alone. Economists and politicians, their super-rich benefactors and the talking heads in the mass media willfully ignore what could present a huge problem for our children.

    Something is simply not right when a single generation of recognizably selfish elders recklessly dissipates Earth’s limited resources, threatens biodiversity and the integrity of the Earth’s body, and remains adamantly silent as they go along their voracious way. The thoughtless, conspicuous consumption of resources by a small ( but rapidly growing ) minority of people within the family of humanity is something of a farce, except this ‘farce’ is devoid of humor because on this very day, when millions of people are becoming morbidly obese, billions of other people are undernourished, hungry or starving.

    My not-so-great generation of elders can do more and better than teach its children how we go about the rapacious process of eating themselves out of house and home. Of this one thing, I speak with genuine confidence.



    Steve Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001

  4. I love Brenda Peterson’s quiet and beautiful exploration of this conversation– she describes her own discomfort and struggle to understand another, so well.

    Surely readers must know there are several different ways Christians look at scriptures about “the parousia” or “end times?” I wish I could speak to this topic thoroughly, with links to other biblical interpretations. I can’t. I pick up this concern simply because no other Christian has yet voiced it, not because I am the best person to offer a response to “the Rapture” referenced in this story.

    To Brenda Peterson, thank you, thank you for writing out this beautiful vignette, a clash of visions of the future. If all differences could be voiced with such kindness and warmth, how much better we’d be.

  5. The wonderful wood engravings seem to pare existence down to the essence that matters, and in doing so, they complement a beautiful story about meeting in places that at first seem so alien to the way we live and think–but then,with patience and kindness,life surprises us with our shared common goodness: The Rapture–rapture … somewhere beyond the divide.

  6. Any person recognizing the spiritual value of Seals must be a good person. In my observations at Homer Alaska I find it very possible that Seals are the archetype foundation for the spiritual idea of a gentle loving side of Buhda: what fine fury ambassadors to inspire respectful contemplation of such a wonderful earth, and Brenda Peterson is wise to capture their power for her new work.

    Thank you Brenda for your time and efforts being a volunteer Seal Sitter, nice! And thank you for such fine writing.

    I too am always watchful for those suddenly “empty” cars, I’m looking for something like the Aircar to trade up to.

  7. Wonderfull! Transcending dogma, just what the public debate must do. How? With the zen.

    “his belly rising and falling in those deep drafts of breath that only the very young of any species seem to enjoy”

    Breath of fire. Keeps you young. aum.

    We all have to start breathing that breath of fire together and illuminate the darkness of mass insanity (thanks Elvis C). Rejuvenate the world.

  8. Thank you for putting this article online. Brenda’s article beautifully weaves together two important themes that all species share: the longing to belong to a family and the deep satisfaction we experience when we are at peace with one another.

  9. I read the article entitled “Saving Seals” and could not help but be struck by several things.

    First, Ms. Peterson seems to have a rather condescending view of Christians and a rather disproportionate worship of our planet and its animal life over and above that of human beings, as though humans are merely in the way and do not belong on this planet.

    In an effort to foster greater understanding, allow me to clarify some things regarding the Rapture and, as she puts it, the end of the Earth.

    Either your friend is not very well versed in prophecy, or your editorial misrepresented him intentionally. The Bible foretells the future of this beautiful Earth in very specific detail. The Rapture does not signal the end of the Earth any more than the birth of a baby signals the end of the mother. The Rapture is not the end of things, but the beginning of things. Please review the following mini-treatise for a better understanding of end times eschatology.

    In short, the Word expressly states that the Earth will never be destroyed, but rather renewed and made beautiful again. Why this would not bring immense comfort to Ms. Peterson is beyond me. After all, she strikes me as a staunch environmentalist. One would think that Ms. Peterson would be the first in line to herald an Earth that has been restored to newness. Alas, that would require a leap of faith for Ms. Peterson, because she would then have to accept the existence of a sovereign, personal God. Something tells me she is not ready to accept that yet.

    As for Ms. Peterson’s admirable desire to save baby seals, something else inside me wonders if she has the same zeal for life when it comes to human babies and the hundreds of thousands of babies murdered every year in abortion centers? No, something tells me that Ms. Peterson’s zeal for saving baby creatures begins and ends with animals. Personally, I have just as much of a desire to see human’s granted the right to life as I do baby seals. But that’s just me.

    In conclusion, I think that Ms. Peterson’s love for this Earth is to be commended. However, as beautiful as the Earth is, it does not represent the pinnacle of God’s magnificent creative imagination. The Earth is not the center of the Universe. God is. And the Earth is not to be worshipped. God alone is worth of that accolade.

    Timothy Carr

  10. seals;
    i dont know is that seal came from your guys healthing place but i seen a seal with a transmiter on its back and two red tags onn its two back flippers

  11. Brenda is my sister and I love her with all my heart. However, her description of our family going to tent revivals wherein people fell to the ground in paroxysms, speaking gibberish, NEVER occurred. Our family asked her to stop writing falsehoods about us, but Brenda is bent on continuing to do so, despite the pain such activities causes our parents.

  12. “Saving Seals” offers us all the rapture and daily practice of interspecies connection and conservation. It’s a model for citizen naturalists to engage with their own backyard beaches, forests, and wild lands. Thanks so much for Peterson’s engaging, generous, and life-affirming story. This writer well recognizes that we share this earthly habitat with other animals.

  13. Thank you, Brenda Peterson, for her insights reaffirming that looking into the soulful eyes of a seal pup is truly “rapture” on this earth!

  14. I found this article fascinating. Two unlikely people with very different spiritual beliefs finding common ground while working together to protect baby seals. This article gives me hope that moves past the polarizing “black and white reasoning” of so many environmentalists and Christian fundamentalists.

    Hopefully, what this writer describes is the way of the future. Instead of blaming “others” we will find the common ground to come together with one another and work for the greater good of this beautiful planet that we all share.

  15. As a Christian, I consider it my duty to our Creator to care for this Earth, this great expression of God’s love. Again and again the Bible asks us to do this very thing: “Speak to the Earth, and it shall teach thee.” Thank you, Brenda, for reminding us all of the joy to be found on this gorgeous planet and in this splendid life. Let our good stewardship be our act of praise.

  16. Peterson’s article offers a lovely and lucid example of how to respond with grace, compassion, and tenderness, not only to the animals with which we share this beloved earth, but also to those we encounter whose beliefs do not match our own “egological” (it makes sense to me!) views.

    In gratitude,

  17. I was referred to this piece by a friend who knows I share residence along this beautiful stretch of sand, sea and wildlife. I will eagerly watch for the two-foot long furry babes who far outshine the bikini-clad ones frolicking the shore of Alki. Thanks for this gentle, witty and mature exchange that has provoked my own musings about how best to honor nature and spirituality. Kudos and a grateful sigh of appreciation to Ms. Peterson’s fine writing.

  18. A friend mentioned Brenda Peterson’s writing, and I’m so glad I found this! I am a gay man. At 19 I had a born again experience, but eventually had to recognize fundamentalism had nothing but destructive answers to my dilemma. I have always had a vital relationship with nature, and it became a great comfort to me in letting go of confusing faith. I, too, have reached the point where I don’t want to leave this world. Thanks to Brenda for writing about this topic with such humour.

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