Seal Release

Glencolmcille, Co Donegal, Ireland

The procession from the parking lot to the beach seems almost biblical. We make our way down the lopsided concrete steps, following clusters of children who carry two rectangular plastic tubs that look like Arks of the Covenant. As the wind kicks up, we draw our coats tighter, hoping for a moment of warmth from the dim January sun that sulks behind the clouds.

The children place the tubs on the cold sand about twenty yards from the water. A woman asks us to form two lines between the tubs and the shore. We arrange ourselves like guests at a wedding—parents and children, older couples, curiosity-seekers, about a hundred in all. The woman asks us to stay in place so that everyone can see.

A man and a woman lift the wire-mesh lids from the tubs and tip them toward the sea. Dark and plump, two young seals slide out onto the wet sand.

“They were skinny little things last October,” someone says. “Big heads and tails, but not much in between.” A boy from Glencolmcille had found them huddled on the beach after a windstorm. They were taken to the Irish Seal Sanctuary near Dublin, and the volunteers have fattened them up on a diet of herring.

We ask each other about how the pups will fare on their own. “Don’t they need a mother to teach them how to catch fish?”

“No, it doesn’t work that way,” says a Sanctuary worker. “Their mothers only suckle them for about a month, and then they abandon them.”

“Abandon them?”

“That’s what they do. The mothers swim away and leave the pups on the shore. Sometimes they wait almost a week for her to come back. When they get hungry enough, they go into the water. Most of them teach themselves how to find something to eat.”

We brood for a moment over this unsentimental information. Abandoning pups seems like something that jackals or hyenas might do, not the friendly looking seals with the glint of intelligence in their eyes.

The pups begin boosting themselves along the sand toward the water. One has second thoughts, and he veers toward the nearest line of people. A Sanctuary worker shoos him back with a tub lid.

We start clapping to encourage them, and the pups pick up speed. Their eyes look earnest, determined, worried—almost human. The one who tried to turn aside now stays close to the other, a little behind but within a flipper’s reach.

As the pups reach the waterline, we break ranks and run down to watch. The bolder one hesitates, then pushes into the low breakers while the other pursues him like a shadow. They start and stop several times, reluctant to abandon the feel of the sand under their bellies. Then, sensing the rhythms of their watery world, they swim out at an angle, heading for the horizon until they disappear into the waves.

Tom Sigafoos, an Irish-American crime writer, lives and writes in Ireland. His website www.tomsigafoos.com includes a blog of quotes and tips on writing.