Face to Face

A seal bobs in the shallows of the cove next to our house. Floating silently, big wide eyes fixed on the rocks and washed up logs in the back of the cove. Where there’s seals there’s usually fish and I rush out the door, grabbing the net leaning against the wall that we always have close at hand. I pick my way down the beach, stepping and sliding over logs, their surfaces slick with rain. I clamber over one and try to push myself up, my hand slips, coming away with some nasty slime coating my palm. But after wearing the same pants for a week a little tree slime seems irrelevant and I wipe it on my pants leg.

The fish love to take shelter in the shallows, even huddling under the logs when they float on the high tide. It’s an aquatic Easter egg hunt and I peer under log after log, looking for a dark shadow, a burst of blue, a hint of silver. I find nothing as I near the far side of the cove. I look out over the water, the seal has vanished like a phantom beneath the waves. There are no sea lions, no humpbacks, just the lapping of the waves. I balance on a floating log and continue to pry the water with my eyes, the net held loosely at my side. The rain that has been falling for three days begins again, and with it the rush of wind, the beginning of a 30 knot storm that would blow in before the night was done, pinning Paul and Helena in Alert Bay for another day.

I reach the last fallen tree and gingerly step off, hearing the rock crunch against my feet, my toes tingling from the cold. I’d gone over the top of my XtraTufs putting the boat away last night and the insides are still lined with sea water. The sun disappears behind the clouds, concluding it’s brief appearance for the day, the solar panels have had little to do this week, but we’ve been keeping the generator plenty busy.

Something large moves in the shallows, than a flash of silver. At my feet is a salmon. Adrenaline rushes, my eyes wide. The chum is laying on its side mouth working feverishly, passing as much water as possible through its gills. One wide unblinking eye stares up at the sky and into the heavens. He’s dinner. I pull the net out, and take a step towards him, this was too easy. But something large and gray slithers across the submerged portion of the nearest log, making me stop my approach.

It’s a harbor seal, maybe five feet away, it’s belly dragging against the rocks of the shallows, whiskers a yard from the fish. It had to know I was there, his sharp ears and wide eyes would have told him long before he reached this point. And yet there he floated, trusting me. For the briefest moment I’m conflicted. Two steps, a yell, and a quick move of the blue net and the fish was mine. And yet, what would that say about me? What kind of man would I be to callously shove this seal aside so that I could have what it had chased. How was that any different from the profit hungry oil company, banging on the doors of the refuge? The hunter on Baranof Island, murdering a bear for its fur. This fish wasn’t meant for me and I knew it. I may want it, but I didn’t need it. I look down at the seal, still floating there, a wave hits shore and almost carries the pinniped into my feet, I’ve gone over the tops of my boots again.

Finally, the seal turns his head, and looks straight into my eyes. For the briefest moment we’re connected. What must he be thinking. Many of my species would call him a pest, destroying nets, eating fish. God forbid that he live the way a seal’s supposed to live. And yet here he was, giving me a chance to do the right thing. Nature once again, giving us a chance to make amends. It was my turn to represent mankind to the animal kingdom, I didn’t want to disappoint.

“Go ahead,” I whisper, “take it, it’s your fish.” The seal turns away and with one movement, delicately grabs the fish by the tail and pulls it back into the deep water. I watch the little gray torpedo depart, gliding serenely through the waves, the fish clenched in his teeth. Ten feet from shore he surfaces, his head turned back toward shore. The tail hangs out one side of his mouth and he hovers for a second, starring at me, and is swallowed up by the sea.

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