The kids and I are up in Portland for a few days; yesterday we drove 30 minutes south to visit my high school friend Courtney and her family at their beach house on Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport.
It was a perfect beach day: hot and sunny, with a little breeze. Tim and Holly were eager to get to the water’s edge. Courtney assured me they wouldn’t really want to submerge themselves since the water was as chilly as one expects from the Maine coastline during the first half of the summer, but apparently several years of living in North Carolina have dulled her memory of what New England kids are accustomed to. Tim and Holly didn’t find it too cold at all; within minutes they were both up to their necks.
And that’s more or less how they stayed for the next three hours. Before it was time to leave, I asked them if they wanted to take a walk along the shoreline. To my surprise, they said yes. Courtney said she’d join us as well; there was a tidal river a short distance to the north that she thought we’d enjoy seeing.
We’d covered only a short distance, though, before we spotted something strange at the water’s edge: a small seal lying on its back in the sand. Three or four other adults were already standing near it; one man poured a bucket of seawater over the animal. They told us they’d already phoned the sea mammal rescue squad, but that it might be thirty minutes before any rescuers arrived. A crowd began to gather, and the man who was pouring the water over the seal at occasional intervals recruited some kids to fill buckets and carry them back to him.
Holly squatted down several feet away and peered at the seal. While the rest of us were looking at its body, trying to figure out what might be wrong – it was definitely breathing but didn’t seem able to make the effort to right itself or move back toward the sea – Holly kept her eyes on the seal’s head. I could see her looking into its large shiny black eyes.
“We could keep walking,” I told her. “The people who are already here said they’d wait until the rescuers arrive.”
“I want to stay,” Holly said resolutely, and Tim said that was fine with him. Holly maintained her position, squatting in the sand not far from the seal’s head, her eyes fixed on the animal’s eyes. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking: she was concerned, obviously, but was she primarily worried, curious, sad?
Mostly, I began to realize, she was trying to be empathetic. She seemed to believe her presence was important to the seal. I know how anthropomorphic that sounds. What this young animal wanted, no doubt, was its mother and its physical well-being back, not a little pale human in a blue polka-dot bathing suit sending it psychic well wishes. But Holly didn’t seem to see it that way. She seemed to think it was her job to stay near the seal, gazing into its eyes, and again she rejected my suggestion that we continue with the walk.
Eventually, Tim and I decided to head onward to the tidal river; Courtney said she would stay with Holly until we doubled back. We were gone only about fifteen minutes, but when we returned, the animal had left and the crowd had dispersed; only Holly and Courtney and a few others remained. Holly looked much more relaxed; she was sitting on the beach building a hill of wet sand.
Later, as we walked back to Courtney’s house, Holly described to me what had happened after we left: two researchers from the nearby University of New England had arrived on the beach and “gave the seal some tests, like feeling around to see what was wrong,” according to Holly; then one of the men wrapped the seal in a towel and placed it in a cage the other man was carrying.
I can’t imagine that things are going to end too well for the seal. It looked sick and injured to me, not just disoriented. though I could certainly be wrong. Another woman on the beach told about a seal who had twice been rescued from a different beach and released; only on the third attempt did the then-tagged animal finally make a successful return to the deep.
It was easy for me to tell how affected Holly was by the experience, and I was affected too, mostly by the way Holly had taken up her post within the animal’s field of vision and stood her ground against leaving until the seal was rescued. I don’t know whether either the child or the marine animal gained comfort from that response, but Holly seemed to think it mattered, and I admire her sense of empathy.
As we drove away from the beach, she said to me, “If I earn any money this summer, I’m going to donate part of it to seal rescues.” No doubt any money donated will be put to good use; saving seals, or any kind of fragile wildlife, is a complicated and costly process. But in Holly’s mind, just being present made a difference to that seal. She sat on the sand; it was all she could do. And whether or not it mattered to the seal, her actions made both Holly and me feel better.