Enjoying The Snow. Part I: Controlling the Beach

Several years back, on a spectacularly perfect August evening down the shore, I had a formative experience. It was definitely the moment that I realized I wanted a camera, and vowed from that point forward, to never go to the beach without one, ever again.

I was swimming my dog when suddenly a very dark shadow appeared out of nowhere in the calm surf. I had to squint through the soft purples and dark blues of the sun’s fading light to see it clearly. It was a seal. A rare sight generally on the front beaches of LBI, and very, very rare during the summer vacation season. My heart was pounding as it always does when the mysterious sea offers up a tiny glimpse of its many hidden treasures.

As I scrambled to get a closer look, a few other people came over towards me, for they had seen it too. “What is it???!” people started asking each other excitedly. “I think it’s a seal!” The seal kept popping up in different spots just offshore in the surf and so we all tried to follow it. And each time he appeared, he was opposite to where we thought he’d be, but getting closer and closer to the beach, until finally he hauled himself out of the water along the edge of the far jetty opposite us. But more walkers were coming towards it from the other direction to also get a look, and the seal was frightened right back into the water before any of us could get anywhere near it. This cycle repeated three or four more times.

I knew nothing about seals at the time, and this was the first I had ever seen one up close. Still, it was very obvious the seal was trying to come up onto the beach, and we were scaring it away. I wanted nothing more at that moment than to see this seal out of the water and on my beach, and realized quickly that by trying to get so close to it, I was undermining my real goal and acting squarely against my own, very simple, self interest.

A crowd of about 20 people had amassed by this time. “I think he is trying to come up onto the beach! Why don’t we all back up and sit down over there and see if it does!?!” I suggested in a whisper that just barley contained my extreme enthusiasm. Everyone was excited about this possibility, so we all walked quickly and quietly up towards the dune and took a seat in the sand. And incredibly, within just a few minutes, the seal appeared, awkwardly hauling himself over the berm and plopped down in a spot right in the middle of us. It was an amazing moment at the beach, and one I don’t think anyone there will ever forget.

We were soon emotionally transformed from being completely stunned to a Zen-like bliss as we all sat there in peaceful silence enjoying a perfect sunset while the seal rolled in the sand, snorted, yawned, stretched, and did various what-looked-like yoga poses right smack-dab in the middle of us. A few others around the beach saw the scene, and they came over to enjoy this moment with us. The vibe was contagious. It was simply magical.

And just as I was about to confirm in my mind that this was indeed one of the coolest moments of my life, this blissful scene was interrupted by a violent outburst of waving arms and a harsh, commanding voice behind us:

“EVERYBODY NEEDS TO GET OFF THE BEACH. YOU NEED TO LEAVE THE BEACH NOW! THE SEAL IS INJURED AND SICK AND YOU ARE KILLING IT. EVERYBODY: OFF THE BEACH; NOW!!!!!”

I remember her words exactly because, to this day, friends and family still use this now-infamous “EVERYBODY NEEDS TO GET OFF THE BEACH” quote, sarcastically, on an almost-daily basis during the summer.

For a moment after she said it, it was once again stunned silence, but of a very different sort. Then a chuckle. Then the entire group was laughing. Someone booed. I believe I heard a “Screw you!” I remember looking at the seal. For the first time, it looked horrified, and its body language suggested it was poised to flip and flop back into the sea in a heartbeat if this woman took another step towards us. She might have made one last-ditch threat of calling the police. More laughter, more boos. Whatever-the-case, she left as suddenly as she appeared, and the magic resumed. Most of us stayed there until the sun had set completely and it was too dark to see even our own toes, before finally saying goodnight to the seal, and going to bed with a treasured memory of the shore.

About two weeks later, I borrowed a camera and started Readings From The Northside. It seems obvious that this magic moment when the beach-as-playground and beach-as-habitat became one, and the wild vacationers and the wild animal shared a great summer moment together motivated me to seek more of these experiences, and also to share them with others. But as the years have passed, it is the crazy woman waving her arms and screaming at people to get off the beach that has truly haunted me, and has been churned over in my mind one million more times than any other part of this experience.

Her motivation was obvious and noble: she wanted to help the seal. But to what end? And who was she? Who did she think she was? Did she really think her strategy would work? Did she really think she could control strangers on the beach like that? Would that have helped the seal? How much would it have helped? And did the seal really need help? How did she know the seal was sick? Why did the seal come sit with us? Were we really killing the seal?

I had, and still have, many, many questions.

But what this entire group of strangers was vicerally certain of sitting there that night was that it was, for better or worse, despite her good intentions, ridiculously and laughably unrealistic to think anyone would ever leave the beach because a seal was there. People were coming to the beach because they had heard a seal was there. Still though, was she right? Was it bad? Was it wrong to hang out with the seal? How wrong? More questions. And if she was right, what could be done about it? She certainly proved that night to me that waving your arms, ranting, and calling people seal murders doesn’t work. But what would work? Even if we truly were seal killers, we surely did not see ourselves as such. In fact, we were quite pleased with how we had handled the situation. We thought the seal seemed happy and healthy. We thought the seal liked us. We were happy. We were proud. She actually insulted us. And so her aggressive suggestion was not only not accepted; it was wholly rejected, along with any bit of useful truth that she might have otherwise been able to impart to us. It was just all so sad, so embarrassing, and so counter productive. I was fascinated. I remain fascinated to this day.

In the journey I’ve followed since that August eve, I’ve seen a lot of seals, and I’m still not tired of them. It’s still pure magic, every time. I’ve learned a lot about their behavior, and how to behave around them.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve also seen a lot of get-off-the-beach ladies. And I’ve sometimes, surprisingly, found myself being the get-off-the-beach lady. I’ve seen some get-off-the-beach ladies succeed, and I’ve seen others fail worse than this one did. I’ve seen great masters of wildlife management effortlessly help animals on crowded beaches, and I’ve seen less experienced ones get threatened with violence. I’ve seen people transformed to become lifelong advocates of endangered animals by get-off-the-beach ladies, and I’ve seen others emboldened to behave more recklessly just to teach the get-off-the-beach lady who’s boss. I’ve seen get-off-the-beach ladies intervene in seriously life-threatening situations, and I’ve seen them intervene on behalf of animals who were, most certainly, absolutely fine.

But I still, for the life of me, have not discovered a reliable way to control the beach when an animal is in peril.

And I still have not figured out how to get myself off the beach when a seal shows up.