An Unlikely Winter Visitor

A young gray seal – about three feet long and forty pounds – meandered its way around downtown Edgartown before New England Aquarium volunteers were able to guide it back to the sea.

Cottage Street in Edgartown, with its white picket fences, brick sidewalks, and manicured hedges, has many familiar sights in the summer: early morning cyclists in tennis whites, strolling tourists with cameras, and beachgoers walking to and fro with coolers and chairs in tow. In the winter much is the same – minus the cyclists, tourists, and beachgoers, who are replaced by carpenters, painters, and caretakers. So in the winter, a visitor of any kind tends to stand out, and last winter one particular traveler stood out more than any other. This off-season tourist was a young gray seal.

The story begins with a call to come to a house where I’d been helping repair a deck. Across the street a carpenter had been setting up for work in the still morning chill and had heard odd animal sounds coming from behind a fence. Peering over the gate into a small enclosed courtyard, he was shocked to see the gray seal pup lying in the corner beside a stack of firewood.

The carpenter had already dialed the New England Aquarium’s marine mammal stranding number, and by the time I showed up, they were asking if he was sure it was a seal. So I took a photo with my phone and e-mailed it to them; less than a minute later, the voice on the phone said, “That’s a seal all right; we’ll send someone right over.” So I kept an eye on the little guy until they arrived. After about fifteen minutes, Dave Grunden, the Oak Bluffs shellfish constable, and his wife, Sharry, showed up expecting a waterfront home with a seal in the yard, but they were surprised to see this three-foot, forty-pound pup so far up Cottage Street.

The closest open water is Edgartown harbor, presumably where it started the inland trek. I could imagine the seal climbing the steep sandy boat launch and going over North Water Street to get to Cottage Street, then continuing down and crossing Fuller Street and winding up in this house’s courtyard. We assume it had slid under the front gate and was stuck in the corner, where it had probably spent the night slumbering. The rescue crew, seeing this wasn’t an easy shoo-the-seal-back-into-the-water situation, asked me to watch it while they went to get their animal transport gear (a dog crate). I stayed outside the courtyard in an effort to keep the seal calm and not cause any stress.

Not long after they left though, the persistent pinniped decided it was time to continue its Edgartown tour, finding its way over a tarp-covered pile of lumber and through a back gate. Once out of the courtyard, it started to move with some sense of purpose – but not urgency. How seals get around on the ground, even the beach, is in complete contrast to their agility in the ocean, where they seem to fly through the water. On dry land, it’s as if the entire back half of the animal is paralyzed, as it lunges its belly forward, gaining about six inches per lunge.

Once in stride, navigating around neighboring garages, sheds, and gardens, the perambulating pup disregarded me as long as I kept a comfortable distance. It was then I felt privileged to be a part of this odd journey. When the seal had been in the courtyard, passersby would stop and show concern, but now that we were on the move, it was just the two of us. I began to hope the seal would make it back to the water on its own before being rescued.

A few more turns, a shortcut through the shrubs, and the furry fish-eater broke out onto Cottage Street’s sidewalk, looking both ways before moving onto the pavement – and away from the harbor. As it passed each house, the seal would pause to rest or to take it all in and, with an apparent seal of approval, advance to the next house. Finally, after forty minutes of travel, it reached the intersection of Cottage and Pease’s Point Way and stopped – at the stop sign – before hanging a right.

Both our experiences turned after this corner. Just when I thought (and hoped) it would head through Sheriff’s Meadow to the beach, the rescue crew drove up with their gear. One minute later, there were ten people gathered around, all with questions of concern. “Is he lost?” “Is he sick?” “Doesn’t the road hurt his belly?” “Won’t he be all alone if you put him back?” “Is that fur?”

The new group of seal watchers helped to calmly and gently maneuver him into the crate under the direction of the trained rescue crew. Five minutes later, the cage was on Fuller Street Beach, and when presented with an open door, the seal headed out – right back toward town. After about fifteen minutes of coaxing, with the help of some wooden panels, the rescue crew guided the seal safely to the natural habitat of the tidal line. After spending about an hour and a half following this wayward wanderer, I like to think it was not sick or lost, but an intrepid young explorer, out for a jaunt in town before rejoining his pod.