Determinedly seeking seals

SOME people are quicker than others. They are the ones who get the parking space near the door and the last cookie in the bag. I, unfortunately, am not among this fleet elite. And so I sometimes compensate with an uncharacteristic display of raw determination. Such was the case when I resolved to see the seals of Muscongus Bay. I had heard about them for days, how they sometimes cruised through the bay with the subtle assertiveness of bargain hunters on their way to a blue-light special. ``You can't miss 'em,'' my friends assured me. And yet, day after day, I had.

My quest gradually acquired a sense of urgency that was hard to explain. After all, I had seen plenty of seals before. I was the only member of the family who sat breathless through the fourth rerun of a Walt Disney movie about some kids who adopt a seal. And then there was the seal show at the aquarium in Florida where the animals all had names like ``Corky'' and could pull poodles on surfboards. But those seals were all ball-balancing celebrities viewed from distant bleachers or the living room couch. The ones here in the bay would somehow be different, I thought. They were free to do as they pleased, not what some trainer with herring in hand had coached them to do.

But my efforts went unrewarded. After some reflection on the matter, I determined that my problem was not technique. I knew, for instance, that since the seals seldom showed more than their heads above the surface, it was best to watch when the water was smooth. That meant sunset or early morning. I also knew that the elusive animals favored the clump of rocks at the head of Muscongus Bay as a resting-sunning spot.

My first attempt to see the seals was early one morning before the mist had even begun to burn off. I sat on the dock for over an hour, my sweater collar bunched together in a futile effort to block out the damp chill. But just as the day was clearing into morning blueness, the silence was pierced by a lobsterman's radio somewhere out on the bay tuned in to the local top-40 station. The pulsing sound of Fleetwood Mac assured that if there were any seals lurking around, they would keep their distance.

Once or twice I thought I spied a seal, only to find it was a duck churning along with its head down in the water.

``Did you see them this morning?'' a neighbor asked one day as I helped launch her sailboat. ``There must have been a half dozen; I could see them from my window while I was making breakfast . . . . '' The conversation stalled as the neighbor, knowing of my quest, saw by the look on my face that, indeed, I had not seen them. I had slept in.

My last chance came late one afternoon. The next day, I would be on my way to Boston and a new job in the red-brick heart of the city. And so I made my way out to the dock and settled back against the overturned dinghy. A quiet afternoon had waned into long shadows, reaching its dark fingers towards Hog Island and the buoys in the bay. The wind was gone, and the water reflected the changing colors of September trees along the Maine shore. The only sound was the quiet sigh of the gangplank connecting the dock to the shore. The tide was running.

The only things moving in the water were the unruly snarls of kelp that gave the twilight air a fishy tang. The long strands had begun pulling between the rocks as the water receded. Up close, I could see the waxy tendrils held tiny snails and bits of driftwood. It was while dangling over the edge of the dock, kelp still hooked over the end of my makeshift gaff, that I finally saw the seals.

From several hundred yards up the bay, two dark shapes were moving toward me. I held perfectly still for a moment, lest I be duped by a duck again. But it was unmistakable this time. The two dark heads formed rippling v-shapes that zigzagged as they moved with their bodies just beneath the surface. In the reflected light, I could make out the shape of their pointed noses and thought I detected fans of whiskers.

The two seals stayed together until they reached the center of the bay, then split apart. One disappeared behind a rocky outcrop, and I expected the other one to follow. But instead he doubled back along the near shore, coming within a few hundred feet of where I was sitting.

It was getting dark now. My seal began to look more and more like an image that lingers after the TV set is turned off, slowly losing the definition of form and color. It moved past the dock, then hurried toward the spot where its friend had disappeared. In a moment it was gone, and so, once more, was my raw determination.

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