In which I rescue a young seal

The day took a sharp turn from the domestic to the adventurous toward evening. We’d had lunch and gone for a walk along the coast down the concrete path that runs south from Muizenberg to St. James, two kilometers or so. I was feeling tired and cranky since I’d been up until the wee hours of the morning thanklessly updating the site for you lot, and so I wasn’t saying too much - just trying to keep myself to myself and not snap at Sheryl. The truth was that I really just wanted to be on my own for a little while. If I had been, I probably would have found a moody enjoyment in the rugged coastline and crashing waves. My mood was slowly improving on the way back, though. We stopped for a bit to watch some fishermen, and then spotted a couple of seals out there battling the waves. There was a storm blowing in, and the waves were very high and very rough. The coastline there is jagged and rocky and the water was smashing in violently, sending spray a couple of meters high.

Out in the water we spotted a little seal, swimming strangely. Seals are graceful in the water, and it was odd to see one swimming with a feeble dog-paddle and barely keeping his head above water. We couldn’t tell what was wrong with him until a wave rolled him over, and then we saw - he had a plastic shopping bag wrapped tightly around his neck. He’d probably been playing and somehow put his head through the hand-hole of the bag, and it had stretched tightly down and had bound just above his flippers. The bag was still intact, and every time he tried to swim or a wave caught him, it would fill with water and drag him back. The poor thing was clearly on his last legs. I don’t care much for seals, I think they’re vile, stupid and self-destructive animals and they smell terrible. They remind me far too much of humans for me to like them. If he’d been dying of natural causes - a shark, say, or a storm - I’d just have shook my head at the brutality of nature and walked on by. But seeing that plastic bag strangling this poor dumb animal, my sense of fury and moral outrage ignited instantly. I felt responsible for the seal and for the bag, on behalf of the whole human race. Animals, after all, are our retarded cousins and don’t deserve a plastic bag around the neck.

We watched for a minute, our hands gripping the railing, urging him on to shore. It had been a minor miracle that he’d made it this far - the waves were huge, and the shark flag had been flying on the beach not two hours before. We knew that getting to shore would only be the start of his troubles, though, since he’d somehow have to make it up onto one of the jagged rocks while being thrown around by the water. The little guy was a fighter, though, and despite being smashed against the rocks over and over he made it up onto one of them. By this time, fighting the little voice in my head that goes what are you doing are you crazy, I’d thrown my bag to Sheryl and scrambled over the same sharp rocks and dodged the same waves to make it out to the edge of the open water to try and help him. I felt horrible about the little limpets and barnacles I crushed underfoot. It was a no-win situation - save the seal and kill the crustaceans, or save the crustaceans and kill the seal. But the choice had been made with my first step. It wasn’t that bad, I kept mostly to bare rock, and anyway we mammals have to stick together, but I still felt momentarily guilty with each crunch I felt under my shoes.

In grave peril of breaking an ankle, losing my skin or possibly drowning, I perched on the edge of the second-last seaward rock and slowly approached the seal. He was only a small one, about the size of a two-year-old kid, but I was still fully aware that he was a wild animal in great distress and wouldn’t hesitate to bite my face off if he possibly could. He was exhausted but still had enough fight in him to snarl and make a threatening coughing sound when I came near. He’d worked so hard to get up on the rock that I was afraid to scare him off it back into the water - I didn’t know if he had it in him to get up again. He was too nervous, or I was too sudden, though, and twice I did just that - he half jumped, half fell back into the raging water and barely made it back. After that I took it much more slowly, edging and inching closer to him. I was hampered greatly by the fact that - as I may have mentioned, I was clinging to sharp rocks and being swamped by smashing waves and as such didn’t have a whole lot of choice about where I put my bloody feet.

I talked to him quietly the whole time, the way you do with animals. Nobody knows why but it seems to be the right thing to do at the time, so you do it. I finally got close enough to him to do something about the bag - he was a meter away on the other side of a waist-high rock, alternately flopped in exhaustion, snarling viciously at me, and trying pathetically to scrape the bag away on the sharp rocks - a lost cause, since it was stretched far too tightly around his neck. I was all too conscious of the fact that he was very unhappy about me being there. I was close enough to grab him or the bag, but seals can move like snakes and he could have bitten me as quickly as thinking about it. Besides the torn flesh, seals are filthy animals and I don’t even want to think about what kind of diseases they carry. If I’d had a pair of heavy gloves the job would have been dead easy - I could have grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and had it done in a second. Lacking gloves, I could only wrap my beach towel around my hand and hope that it was thick enough to stop his teeth or that I was fast enough to avoid them. After ten minutes of feinting and dodging, I finally saw my chance, darted in and grabbed hold of the trailing end of the bag. It was wrapped around his body a couple of times, so when I hauled on the bag it unwound from him like the string on a top, spinning him around addled and confused.

I was hoping that the bag would come right off his neck, but it tore instead, leaving me with nearly all of a plastic shopping bag and him with a ragged white plastic collar. I wanted the whole thing off him, but I’d accomplished the most important thing - he could at least swim properly again, and (I hoped) hunt for fish. Precariously perched among the crashing waves, buffeted by the wind and eyeing the gathering black storm-clouds, I made a few good tries for the ragged bits, hoping to drag the thing over his head, but he was far too mad at that point and wasn’t co-operating at all. I got a hold on it twice, but it was too slippery and wedged too tightly around his neck, and the towel still wrapped around my hand made it so that I couldn’t get a good enough grip on the plastic so it kept slipping out of my grasp while he jackknifed and twisted. I got the sense that I’d pushed him as far as I could and trying any more would just scare him off the sheltered spot in the rocks that he’d worked so hard to get to.

I scrambled back away from him toward shore and lost sight of him in the rocks. I was angry at my half-failure, but grudgingly satisfied with my half-success - I wasn’t able to entirely right the wrong he’d suffered at the hands of the asinine human race, but maybe I did enough for him so that he could avoid sharks, find food and make it back to his colony. I’d like to think he was fine after a bit of rest. The kid was a fighter.

Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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Noordoewer, Namibia
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