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    Ode to the Elephant Seal

    In the waves the truth doth lie
    Like God the ocean speaks

    All souls rise and drown in time
    So too shall worlds in cosmic seas

                                                                                    -Walter Lloyd Waterson, Preface to The Lives of Sea Creatures

     They were watching, out there past men’s knowing, where stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.

                                                                                     -Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

           Elephant seals are magnificent and majestic seabeasts that cruise vast stretches of the worlds oceans.   They spend the majority of their lives in the water, and breed and molt on shore.  Colonies of the northern elephant seals gather annually in established breeding areas along the Pacific coast of North America, and California rookeries can be found in Ano Nuveo, Point Reyes, and Cambria.  Here’s some footage of a lone elephant seal swimming and chuffing in the waves off Chimney Rock in Point Reyes:

           Elephant seals are social, vocal creatures capable of extraordinary feats; achieving numerous superlative titles in the animal kingdom.  Northern elephant seal bulls grow to tremendous proportions: battle-class alpha males can exceed 5,000 pounds and reach a length of sixteen feet.  Southern elephant seals, which live in the southern hemisphere, can exceed twenty feet in length and weigh over 8,800 pounds.  They’re capable of holding their breath for over an hour and a half, and they dive (possibly while simultaneously sleeping) thousands of feet in search for prey.   Northern elephant seals have recently been tracked at depths of 5,788 feet, over a mile deep.  They migrate further than any other mammal in the world, traveling 13,000 miles annually.  Males swim along the continental shelf from California to feed in Alaska, while females make two foraging trips a year throughout the northeast Pacific.  They spend between two to eight continuous months at sea, and always return to the same feeding areas and rookeries at the same time year after year.  When they arrive at their breeding grounds in winter, male elephant seals battle for dominance over harems of females.  Here are two boardwalk street fighters throwing down on the Point Reyes waterfront:


           In the late 1800s, humans slaughtered hundreds of thousands of northern elephant seals for the oil contained in their blubber.  By 1892, a sole colony of fifty to one hundred elephant seals remained on Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja California, and these were protected by the Mexican government.  Throughout the 1900s, a resurgent elephant seal population skyrocketed, and the current population abounds at approximately 160,000 members.  Due to the fact that the existing population arose from a limited gene pool, northern elephant seals share very similar genetics, which makes them more susceptible to contracting diseases should a virus spread throughout their species.  Here’s some footage of elephant seals families lounging on the beach below the cliffs of Chimney Rock:

           In the beginning of the clip, you can hear the guttural cries of little elephant seal pups.  Like many newborn mammals, they’re virtually defenseless and rely on their mothers for protection and sustenance.  An elephant seal mother will nurse her young (sometimes adopting lost seal pups) for about a month, during which time a pup will gain around nine pounds a day from consuming the rich milk (55% fat) of the mother.  They young pups will grow and then severe their bonds with their mother. (I wonder if some animals, like elephant seals or birds look at their young and identify distinguishable and distinct personality traits that are unique to each of them, so that a mother bird can watch the erratic behavior of her son and say, “There he goes, he’s just a crazy bird...”*)  If they’re males, northern elephant seals will live to be about thirteen, and the lifespan of females is around twenty.  Their lives will be filled with adventure and mystery as they explore the dark and gloaming depths of the oceans in search for food to stay alive; their survival as adults linked to the seas which they depend on as much as they depended on their mothers who nursed them into being.  They will drift beneath stars and full moons, through whale song seas and bioluminescent tides, and bask upon the sundown shores of this world.  They will live profound and beautiful lives, each perceiving their own existence as one who is at the center of the universe,** yet perhaps possessing a deeper understanding, however fleeting, that they are part of greater order which is owned by no one. 



    *In the Web of Life lecture from the Out of Your Mind Lecture Series, Alan Watts brings up a funny notion about sea shells critiquing other sea shells, and ties this into a larger, more serious concept related to the way we humans tend to separate ourselves from the world around us.  He says:

    I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing – something to be condemned – to take your own individual life seriously in dead earnest, and to have all the problems that go with that.  Do understand that being that way, that being a real mixed-up human being is a manifestation of nature that is something just like the patterns on the waves out here, or like a sea shell.  You know we pick up shells – I always keep one around as sort of an example for many things – and say, “My goodness, isn’t that gorgeous? There’s not an aesthetic fault in it anywhere, it’s absolutely perfect.”  Now I wonder, I wonder if these fish look at each other’s shells and say, “Don’t you think she’s kind of fat?  Oh my, those markings aren’t really very well spaced.  Pssshhh.”  Cause’ that’s what we do, see we don’t realize that all of us in our various goings on and behaviors and so on are just as marvelous – more marvelous, much more complicated, much more interesting – all these gorgeous faces that I’m looking at, you know every one of them – some of them supposedly pretty, some are supposedly not so pretty, but they’re all absolutely gorgeous.  And everybody’s eyes is a piece of jewelry beyond compare. Beautiful.  But we have specialized in a certain kind of awareness that makes us neglectful of that.  You see we specialize in more or less briefly concentrated, pin-point attention.  We look at this and we look at that, and we select from all the things we might possible be aware of, only certain things.  And as a result of that, we leave out of our everyday consciousness, generally speaking, two dimensions of experience;  one: amazing beauty of experience that we never see at all, and on the other hand, a very deep thing:  the sense of our basic identity, unity with, oneness with the total process of being.  See, because we are staring, as it were, at certain features of the landscape, we don’t see the background.  And because we get fascinated with – you know I could go into details of this shell, as I said, and put myself in the mind of a conch or whatever it is that lives in this thing and say, “Hmm, that’s not so not hot that one,” Like that you see?  And so, I wouldn’t see the whole thing!  But when I look at it like this, when anybody looks at it like that we say, “Oh my God isn’t that gorgeous?”


    **In philosophizing about the idea of reincarnation, Alan Watts makes some interesting (although possibly impossible to prove) points about the way that sentient objects perceive see things around them.  This is from a lecture called Every Incarnation is this One, from the Out of Your Mind lecture series:

    And the Buddhists thought that one over, and they said, “Crazy…we found a way of samsara – the wheel of birth and death.”  And somebody one day said, “But, isn’t that rather selfish?  You get yourself out, what about all the other people? Don’t you have any feeling of compassion?”  “Oh yes,” they said, “Of course.  We forgot that didn’t we?  Let’s come back again, and uh, help all these people out.” Then they got very sophisticated about it and they said, “Look, if nirvana is release from birth and death, then they’re opposed, and so nirvana and birth and death go together and they will have to imply one another.  So you’re really only released if you see that, if you see that nirvana and birth and death are the same thing.” 

    Now I’m gonna pull a fast one on you.  So every time an incarnation occurs, it feels like this one.  See, it might be quite different – we might we reincarnated in another universe as beings in of altogether different shape, see?  Not at all like human beings, but because we were used to it we would feel that that was the human shape.  We would say, “Well that’s natural, obviously, obviously, that’s the way things are.”  So naturally, if you appeared in the form of a spider, you would look around at other spiders and say, “Well yes, of course, this is, this is a natural place to be in, this is the human shape.”  Something that is not us looks at us and thinks we look perfectly terrible.  I mean imagine how you look to a fish: clumsy, cumbersome, stupid looking thing.  Whereas a fish is so elegant and graceful and can slide through the water so beautifully.  The human beings can’t even swim properly. 

    So don’t you see, that in every world that comes into being, or could come into being, it seems just like it seems now, and every species that you could belong to would seem like this one.  It would have its up end of what is highly intelligent, and its low end of what is not so intelligent.  You would be aware of superior forces and inferior forces; otherwise you wouldn’t have the idea of mastering a situation unless there were situations you couldn’t master.  Now we are not aware of species of beings above us unless you cultivate those forms of psychic awareness when you think you’re in touch with angels or something of that sort.  But the things that appear to be above us are great natural processes, only we think they’re rather stupid, only very tough, too strong for us: earthquakes, the elements, also some little ones, see the virus is a very troublesome being.   And this is where a human being really finds himself at his wits end in dealing with molecular biology.  So, you know, if the monsters don’t get your, the ministers will – the insects, you see. 

    But at any rate, whatever level you’re on, it always appears to be the same one.  Now we...therefore, naturally, don’t we, we feel we’re in the middle.  We feel, for example, with the telescope, that there is a world greater than us that is infinitely greater; we feel with the microscope there’s a world below us that’s infinitely smaller, and we seem to stand in the middle.  Of course you seem to stand in the middle, every creature stands in the middle because if you stand on a boat in the middle of the ocean and you turn around through an angle of three hundred and sixty degrees, you will see the same distance in every direction.  That’s because you see, and your sensitivity to sight or the intensity to light is the same in every direction, so you’re in the middle.  You’re always in the middle.  Where else would you be?  In other words, anything that perceives anywhere is always in the middle.  Anything that grows anywhere is always in the middle.  It’s betwixt and between.  And the middle always has, therefore, extremes.  It has extremes in space – as far west and as far east as you can think, as far on and as far back.  And there’s always a beginning and there’s always an end, just as there’s a left and right, or a top and a bottom. 

    Reader Comments (2)

    Great article, did you have a bonding experience while kayaking?

    January 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTitus

    Hehe, not yet. But I intend to go back there with the kayak next month.

    January 13, 2014 | Registered CommenterAaron

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