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Watermen and Seals

Monday, July 16, 2007

It is humbling to be around true watermen, people who can hold their stomachs while putting putrid bait in lobster traps as the boat circles while sloshing side to side. I’d last about ten minutes at a job like that, and then I'd be calling my friend RALPPHHH! Maine lobstermen are people who know the weather and water and run their pots all winter long, who get up at 3:30 to start their day. This is my favorite snapshot of a waterman and his tiny daughter, already pulling food from the sea. Little known fact, one that I learned in Newfoundland and that holds true in Maine: Most watermen can’t swim. How would they ever learn? Water’s so cold that if you go in, you don’t have a chance anyway. It’s all about boating in Maine. There’s no frolicking in these waters.

Unless you’re a harbor seal. Being around pinnipeds, like most of us are used to being around deer, is a huge thrill. Harbor seals look like people in bathing caps, or, at close range, startlingly like big, sweet googly-eyed dogs. I was missing Baker at this point and thought a pat on a seal's head (a very bad idea) would do nicely.They adorn most every emergent rock around Hog Island. I looked for gray seals but wasn’t lucky enough to see them—they’re much larger and longer-faced than the little harbor seals—watermen call them horseheads.

Like dogs, harbor seals can get distemper. Phocine distemper virus claimed a huge number in an epizootic outbreak in 1988. There was another die-off of harbor seals from avian influenza in 1979-80. Still, there are plenty of them, hauled out on every little islet. I found this skull near the end of a whole-island hike led by Scott Weidensaul. It was the perfect hidden treasure for having thrashed my way through waist-high wet ferns while windmilling my arms against whining clouds of mosquitoes. Look at the enormous eye sockets, the broad, round cranium. These seals can see in the dim, wavering underwater gloam, and they have powerful masseter (jaw) muscles that pass through those round holes and allow them to crush mussels, clams and oysters, crustaceans, and the softer squid and fish that comprise their diet. Harbor seals can live to 30 years and dive more than 500 meters deep to find their food. This animal had worn, blunted canines and molars. I hope it lived a full life.
Speaking of living a full life, Phoebe found the first copperhead of the season today. Had to be captured and saved for a wildlife educator. Yes, we got pictures. Then to the dentist. Then to meet a sometime wildlife rehabilitator who had what turned out to be an eight-day-old hummingbird. I put together a care package of food, instructions and equipment for her and taught her how to feed and house it. Yes, pictures again. Then to the grocery store, and to put new tires on my car. Then to watch Bill play a double header in church-league softball. All with kids in tow. I'm thwacked. I did write four Maine blog entries while watching the softball game. It can be done. You type madly while watching the game. You have to watch the game...

A foul tip rose up backward, over the batter's cage and into the bleachers. I looked up and it had "MacBook Pro" written on it. A frozen moment in time, staring at that ball, coming down on me and my laptop. Leapt up and crab-hobbled, bent over the precious computer, about ten feet to the side. The ball narrowly missed Phoebe, who was right behind me. When it landed, not on my daughter or computer, I held the laptop over my head in victory and the bleachers erupted in roars of laughter. I got a whole lot of grief about saving the laptop first, then checking on Phoebe. Guilty as charged. This, I do for you.
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