Monomoy Wilderness Refuge
by Elisabeth Nickles
When looking at the earliest recognizable artwork I made as a child, there are seals. I have always loved seals, their tapered bodies and puppy like heads. I have a small sculpture of one I made at 8. In the late 1970's and earl 1980's, there was a growing campaign to educate the public on where the seal fur came from for their fur coats. The pictures of the bloody, baby seals being clubbed were too much and stuck in my mind. How could anyone club something so innocent? My friend and I protested in front of Bloomingdales with her mother and others, who worked for fund for animals in NYC.
So after years of distantly loving seals, seeing them from afar, and thinking of them as exotic, it was thrilling to see them so close and have the privilege of spending a long time watching them. When I first saw them closer than ever it was not close enough. One is not allowed to approach closely, any sea mammal and besides, they will just be afraid and that was not my goal. I knew I needed a zoom lens.... I would need time to be quiet, be still and take the time first to watch them while laying down in a non-threatening way.
It is one thing to see or photograph an animal in fear and to startle a creature, or to say, view a stuffed head of an animal, as opposed to one that is actually living and breathing. Beyond that, it is completely different to watch them as they really are and to see them play, interact and do what seals do. The young seals are not as frightened as the adults, although I understand the fear of humans. Until 1964 there was a bounty on seals in America. Still some people illegally shoot them as they perceive them to be competing for the same fish.
I knew in order to observe and photograph them, I would have to be strategic. I kept a distance over the upper beach, body poised like a sharpshooter. I started to stretch like this little one, thinking if I did not act or appear human maybe we could hang out and get to know each other. So I watched and I think she knew I was watching and she grew comfortable with me, stretching and smiling with her. Definitely one of the best moments of my life, I kept smiling for a long time and into the night.
|the moment I fell in love|
I wish I could have captured with a bigger lens, the way the seals looked and behaved when I was even further away. The group of seals sunbathing and stretching was such a bizarre site, their bodies sculptural, yet awkward on land. I watched the young ones twirling and playing in the surf, it was not that different than seeing a bunch of people on the beach, the little kids playing while the adults relax and retreat. There is definitely an odor to a pod of seals and you know when you are downwind that you will be seeing them soon.
|Monomoy Atlantic Coast facing North|
|Male grey seal|
Here is a male grey seal, he seemed to dominate the scene. The males were grouped together on the beach. They are much larger than the females and they have a very distinct nose and eye socket. Their heads are much larger and angular. While kayaking, I noticed that the males would come closer to check out the boat than the females.
|The pose I find so amusing and wonderful- the 'S' curve, the stretching of the back fins, their anatomy an earlier variation of ours. I saw many seals take this stretch, it must feel really good.|
|The seal that swam the coast while megan and I walked North|
|seals watching humans|
|a favorite food of seals: Skate|
There is no life without death
The first time I saw a seal close it was dead, hard to see but I am fascinated with anatomy, more so, the bones as I am not desensitized to carcasses. We have always learned about life, by studying death. Artists and scientists both learn from dissections, artistic anatomy dealing with morphology and what influences the surface structure more than the interior workings of organs. So this brings up how we view death and bones. Bones are our structure as vertebrates, our mechanism, the architecture and I love to look at them and understand the engineering related to how an animal lives and survives in an environment.
I think bones symbolize life more than death, but they will remind one of their own mortality. Humans are conscious of their ultimate death and it is another thing to grapple with while living. Life and death are forever linked - not good or bad, just existing. We long as a species to believe there is a place we all go and everything is good, or all has a purpose in the coming and going of lives, love and attachments. I am perplexed when I try to believe because then I must consider the worms, do they have a heaven also? If reincarnation is true- then what about bugs? I see reincarnation occurring each day- in the energy that is exchanged between life and death. It is all "good" because life and death create constantly.
One thing gives, so another thing lives. It sounds harsh unless we think of life as one giant organism. And Monomoy challenged me to do this, as there is death everywhere- in the tern colony, in the bones washed up or rotting bodies of seals. Each time we eat, something along the way has lost its life. It is the way of being on planet earth for an organism. It is all give and take and life always goes on. It is neverending. There is life after death, change inevitable. Of course there is a balance that can be easily thrown off, as with any exchange. The seals live again and feed the Great white sharks that have returned to the area. Without this predator, the population my grow as to not be able to sustain itself. If one side is always taking, or doing all of the killing, this exchange of life to death for sustenance goes beyond necessity and I think this is where humans have gotten into trouble.
|the first day on monomoy, you can see the thick layer of fat |
that keeps the seal insulated in the cold water.
|This seal was badly injured, a chunk of her was missing from her side.|
perhaps from a boat or from a shark. I found it hard to see something
suffering and my instinct is always to help. I had to let it go and hope that she
|seal spine at powder hole|
not so different from you and I
(2221). The aquatic tribes of the Carnivora (Amphibia, Cuv.) are obviously constructed for swimming. Their bodies, covered over with short, close, and polished hair, taper off towards each extremity, resembling in form those of the Cetaceans. The cervical, thoracic, and lumbar regions of the spine are light and flexible; and the pelvis is contracted, and placed as far back as possible. Both the anterior and posterior extremities, although completely formed, are short, and in the living animal are only free externally as far as the carpal and tarsal joints. The feet, moreover, are broadly webbed, and thus become converted into most efficient paddles, by the aid of which these creatures swim with astonishing ease and elegance, the hinder pair performing at once the functions of oars and rudder. Upon land, however, their movements are, as might be supposed, extremely clumsy: it is true that they not unfrequently scramble on to the beach, there to bask in the sun, or to suckle their little ones; but if danger threatens, they immediately take to the water, and fall easy victims if their retreat towards the sea be intercepted.
This section is from the book "General Outline Of The Organization Of The Animal Kingdom, And Manual Of Comparative Anatomy", by Thomas Rymer Jones.