Gray seals hauled out on Monomoy Island, south of Chatham, Massachusetts, below the elbow of Cape Cod. The population, once decimated by hunting, has rebounded since passage of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. It’s now estimated at 15,000—16,000 individuals in the Cape and Islands region.
Photo Credit : William Huber
It’s a sunny morning in early June, and the scene at Fish Pier in Chatham, Massachusetts, on the elbow of Cape Cod, is a perfect split-screen image of the Cape’s bipolar personality: On the upper deck, 40 or 50 tourists at a time line the rails, cooing and sighing every time a gray seal rises in the green water below and shows its glossy dark eyes. Meanwhile, at ground level, just below, the commercial fishermen unloading their meager catch darkly curse the seals as their worst enemy.
Someone calls down a question from the deck, and an older fisherman with battered teeth and tattooed arms answers. “This water used to be loaded with stripers,” he begins amiably. “I used to bring my kids here at the end of the day to fish. Now the stripers are all gone.
“The seals ate ’em,” he says, revving himself up. “They eat 200 or 300 pounds of fish a day.” And then the closer: “There are hundreds of seals here that we all want to kill.” The tourists nod politely, aghast. Kill seals? It’s illegal, and besides, they’re too cute.
But even some tourists have lately begun to wonder just how much cuteness Cape Cod can stand. From a few dozen seals in the early 1990s, the local population of gray seals has boomed to upwards of 15,000. It represents a dramatic recovery for a species that was largely extirpated from the Cape in the 19th century, and it’s a triumph for the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. But to some people, it also looks like way too much of a good thing.
On Cape Cod, the main “haulout,” where gray seals come ashore to rest and to reproduce, is on Monomoy, a strip of uninhabited barrier islands extending eight miles south from Chatham into Nantucket Sound. But these days there’s hardly a beach from Falmouth to Provincetown, or on the islands, where seals don’t visit, sometimes hundreds of them at a time. This booming population has brought about a sea change for both beachgoing tourists and the traditional working Cape alike.
Most sensationally, great white sharks now routinely patrol the Cape in search of seals for dinner—and they sometimes make mistakes. Early in July 2012, a novice kayaker off Nauset Beach in Orleans turned around to see the dorsal fin of a great white bearing down on him. He managed to paddle furiously to shore, tumbling into the surf just as the shark turned away. Three weeks later, a great white grabbed a swimmer off Ballston Beach in Truro. He also survived, after a frantic and bloody race to the beach. The two incidents sent a voyeuristic thrill racing across the Cape and introduced a new sense of trepidation to the simple joy of playing in the surf. They also gave fishermen a slightly perverse cause for hope.
“You know how we’re going to get rid of the seals?” says a charter-boat captain at Chatham Fish Pier that morning in June. He gestures seaward with an open-end wrench. “A shark is going to eat some fat lady from New Jersey. Then they’ll go, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got a seal problem.’” He wonders aloud whether his Web site should feature a picture of Captain Quint, from the movie Jaws, filmed just across the water on Martha’s Vineyard. “You wait,” he growls, wishfully. “This summer we’re going to see some action.”
“That one there is a female,” Keith Lincoln tells the tourists on his 32-foot seal-watch boat, Rip Ryder. “See her brindle coat? Come on now, sweetheart. Look at that cute little ice-cream-cone face. Wait till you see one of the big males. They get ugly.” Male gray seals can weigh up to 800 pounds, about twice as much as females. Their faces are doglike, with a dignified Roman nose bump. The species name Halichoerus grypus means “hooked-nosed sea pig.”
Lincoln, a Harwich police patrolman by night, runs Monomoy Island Ferry and Seal Cruises by day, and over the idling of twin 250-horsepower Evinrudes, he delivers a knowledgeable introduction to the strange biology of the gray seal. He’s telling his passengers that a diving seal can stay underwater for up to 20 minutes. “How do they manage it?” he asks. Trick question. A passenger ventures that they must have enlarged lungs.
“When you dive down to 500 feet,” Lincoln replies, “the last thing you want is two big balloons full of air in your chest.” Instead, seals flood the pockets of their lungs with plasma to solidify them against the intense atmospheric pressure. They also drop their heart rate to as low as 10 beats per minute. “Gray seals’ blood has three to five times more hemoglobin than ours,” Lincoln explains, “so it can carry more oxygen out to the muscles.” The muscles likewise contain more myoglobin, so they can hold onto oxygen longer. To prolong their dive time, the seals also turn off liver, kidney, and all other functions that are at least temporarily unnecessary. “You and me are just big F150 trucks. We motor through it,” Lincoln tells his passengers. But a diving seal is all about efficiency.
That matters, he explains, because it influences what a gray seal eats—not 200 pounds in a day, but more like 20 or 30, and not the sort of fish that would interest a commercial fisherman, but sand eels. They’re slender little fish that burrow into the bottom with only their heads exposed to feed on drifting copepods—until a seal comes along to snap them up. A study of seal scat on Cape Cod found that sand eels make up 48 percent of the local seals’ diet. Striped bass and bluefish didn’t show up at all, Lincoln says, because seals aren’t built for high-speed chases. “Eight hundred pounds and exercise is a bad thing,” he tells his passengers. “Easy livin’, that’s what it’s all about.”
New England fishermen have always believed otherwise, viewing seals as their worst, or at least their most visible, competition. From 1888 to 1962, Massachusetts and Maine together bounty-hunted up to 135,000 seals, enough to make them scarce throughout New England. Older men on the Cape can still recall the last few seals that occasionally showed up when they were boys in the 1950s. They generally shot them and handed in their noses to collect a $5 bounty.
Today’s seal advocates, however, believe that the return of the animals to these waters has not depleted the commercial fishery—that in fact “the fish were killed off by overfishing,” as one supporter put it. “What killed them off was technology—gill nets, and bottom trawling, and depth finders that can spot a fish at a thousand feet. The fish don’t have a chance.”
Though he does not say so to his customers, Lincoln will happily tell his neighbors that the coming of the seals to Cape Cod is a good thing economically, even for a traditional fishing community like Chatham. “There are five seal-watching companies in the area, and we each carry 5,000 to 7,000 people a year,” he says. It’s not just what customers pay to see the seals ($35 a person on Lincoln’s boat), but also what they spend before or after for a meal in town. He figures that adds another $1 million to the local economy.
Plenty of fishermen, on the other hand, are prepared to argue just as stubbornly (but not so happily) about what’s been lost. At dawn on a late-spring morning, Ernie Eldredge sits back on the engine housing of his open 28-foot boat, hands folded across his stomach, his right hand now and then casually reaching down to tweak his course seaward out of Chatham’s Stage Harbor. He’s 63 years old, with hanks of hair flying out from under his cap, over sea-bleached blue eyes, weathered cheeks, and a yellowing beard. He started fishing these waters with his father at the age of 10, using a technology that dates back to the Cape’s original Wampanoag inhabitants. He’s now the last weir fisherman still working on the Cape, for reasons that quickly become apparent.
A weir is a structure set up in the balmy winds of a New England March, a mile or so offshore, by driving 125 or so hickory poles, each about 40 feet long, 6 feet deep into the sandy bottom. They form a long straight line, called the leader, and when rigged with nets, they steer fish along their length into a heart-shaped pen, and then through a narrow gate into “the bowl,” which has a net strung across the bottom. Or that’s what they would do, says Eldredge, if there were more fish and fewer seals.
As the boat pulls up to the first weir, the seals poke their heads up out of the water on either side of the leader and stare curiously, almost gratefully, as if to welcome their provider. A few years ago, a graduate student did a sonar study at one of Eldredge’s weirs and recorded 290 seal crossings at the gate in a day. Now Eldredge keeps the gate fenced off and has a birdcage of nets rigged high around the perimeter, to keep seals from clambering over
“But they still intercept the fish as they’re coming up the leader, and they scatter them,” he says. When the sonar was in place, he could actually watch as a school of squid, his target species, moved up along the leader. Then the seals would appear and the squid would spin around in the opposite direction. “They break up the whole school of fish,” he says. Eldredge, his daughter Shannon, and two other crewmen spend 45 minutes cinching in the net on the first of four weirs. It’s heavy hand-over-hand work, made harder by several tons of brown algal crud, a byproduct of excess nitrogen from too many houses and too many fertilized lawns along the shoreline. For their trouble, they come up with a mess of inedible spider crabs, a fish skeleton stripped bare, and a solitary squid. “That’s fishing in the 21st century,” Eldredge says. “And that’s why we don’t have a lot of competition.” He’s thinking about switching over to mussel farming, where the seals might pose less of a problem.
Other, angrier fishermen just want to take matters into their own hands, if only symbolically for now: At his home on the Cape, one commercial fisherman sometimes serves canned seal meat on Ritz crackers, “like pâté,” he says. He also keeps a bottle of omega-3 pills made from seal oil. You can buy either at groceries in Canada’s Maritime Provinces, where harvesting seals is a venerable, if controversial, tradition. In this country, even owning such products is a federal crime. But that only makes them more appetizing.
“I don’t want an all-out slaughter of seals,” he says. What he wants is to modify the Marine Mammal Protection Act to arrive at “a better balance between seals and people.” That could mean permission to harass seals to keep them away from fishing gear, he suggests. It could mean birth control for seals. Or it might mean an annual cull: “What are the alternative uses for a dead seal? Is there a meat market, a fur market, an oil market? And it turns out there’s a market for all these things. Maybe we could have a fishery that targets seals, with a quota attached to it?”
Then, in the next breath, he recalls why such a thing will almost certainly never come to pass. It’s not the law. It’s not the bipolar Cape Cod personality, half cooing, half cursing. It’s human nature. When you look at a month-old human baby, he says, “the first thing you see are the big round eyes and the bald head, and your heart melts. This is an evolved trait. It happens to you without your knowing it.” By coincidence, seals elicit the same emotional response, he says: “You see the big eyes, the bald, round head, and the cuteish look that it gives you, and you automatically become its protector.” He feels it himself: “You can’t help but feel it. The difference is that I can identify it.” Other people, he suggests, are too caught up in their anthropomorphic notion that seals are almost human.
Recreational fishermen also generally manage to set aside any sentimental feelings, particularly because the contest with seals can seem so individual, so mano a mano. A surfcaster will pack up the car, drop the tire pressure down to 15 pounds for beach driving, wend his way out several miles to a favorite fishing spot, take his rod off the rack—and immediately a seal will pop up in the water directly in front of him. This business of floating upright and watching is called “bottling,” and sometimes 10 or 12 seals will show up and bottle together. Even if they can’t catch a striped bass or a bluefish on their own, they’ve become adept at stealing one off the end of a fisherman’s line.
If the fisherman moves down the beach, the seals often follow. Their great glossy eyes are widely separated, with the browline turned down anxiously at the outsides, making them look like Mr. Wimpy, or a dozen Mr. Wimpys, all meekly offering to pay the fisherman Tuesday for a striped bass today. Not so meekly, a seal will sometimes come hammering up out of the surf to snatch away a fish just as the fisherman is about to bag it.
“When people see the seals taking a striped bass off the line two or three times, they don’t try a fourth time. They just stop,” says the proprietor of a local sporting-goods shop. The seals form a “gray wall” in the surf, and schools of fish that used to run the beaches take the hint and move offshore. As a result, he says, the whole culture of spring and fall fishing on the beaches has gone away. Or rather, “it’s turned into rich man’s fishing. You have to buy a boat, or charter one.”
Out on Nantucket, where merely breathing can be a rich man’s sport, recreational fishermen have formed a Seal Abatement Coalition (SAC) to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Peter Krogh, a courtly, high-browed figure in khaki slacks and a perfectly fitted tweed jacket, spent his career as a professor at Georgetown. He and a neighbor, a former Citibank executive, both retired to Nantucket for the beach fishing—only, as they see it, to have the seals take it away from them. “We sometimes wonder why we’re doing this,” Krogh says, about the SAC campaign. “We could just be playing golf. But if something isn’t done, the seals are going to overwhelm us and take over the island.” A lobbyist who has a house on Nantucket is pushing the cause for them on a pro bono basis in Washington, D.C.
This idea makes some other Nantucket residents seethe. “What gets me about SAC is the sense of entitlement,” says Blair Perkins, who grew up on the island and now runs Shearwater Excursions, a whale-watch business. “They’re entitled to the fish and the seals aren’t. They’re recreational fishermen, and it’s interfering with their playtime. I don’t understand that at all.” The seals, he says, “need to haul out somewhere. They’re at sea sometimes for days or weeks at a time. They just want to survive as they have for thousands of years. To say that they’re interfering with my recreation is just arrogant.”
One morning back in Chatham Harbor, the fishermen watch out of the corners of their eyes as scientists and federal agencies get ready to head out on a seal-research mission. It takes two hours of loading equipment, working out a plan, and explaining it to assembled reporters before the party even gets off the dock. It’s a flotilla of six little boats in a line, and—to general snickering among the fishermen—they never even make it out of the harbor.
They don’t need to: There are plenty of seals to work with just 15 minutes from the dock. A little before 9:00 a.m., the two lead boats drop down a little below an exposed sandbar, where 100 or so seals have hauled out. Then the boats turn and ease back up, on either side of the sandbar, with a tangle net bellying out in the water between them. As the seals scatter, other members of the team jump onto the sandbar and start hauling in the net. In short order, they have four seals ashore and start the careful business of untangling. “Nails free?” someone yells, and “I’ve got a flipper here!” Three seals quickly get released again, rejoining a vast herd now bottling nearby.
The fourth, a female, gets shifted into a carrying net and transported by boat to a broader stretch of sand, where, at 9:38, the scientists inject a sedative, weigh her in at 337 pounds, and gather around her in a sort of outpatient surgical scrum. At the head, someone extracts a tooth for aging, and at the tail someone else inserts what’s supposed to be a rectal thermometer but looks more like a colonoscopy tube as it threads endlessly inward. A guy with a computer rigged from a shoulder harness, like a beer tray at the ballpark, steps in to take a quick ultrasound image for blubber depth, then deftly steps aside to give other scientists room to take blood, skin, blubber, microbial swabs, and other samples. “Got a whisker,” the guy at the head calls out. “Who needs a whisker? Okay, we’re up to 16 minutes.”
Someone is now mixing tubes of five-minute epoxy and slathering it onto the mesh-fabric backing of a $5,000 electronic device about the size of a point-and-shoot camera. Glued to the back of the seal’s skull, it will record her location, depth, ocean temperature, and other indicators for up to nine months. Every time she comes ashore long enough to dry off, it will trigger the device to place a cell-phone call and transfer the latest data, until the device finally drops off when she molts. The team will place similar devices on a total of nine seals over the next few days, and then analyze the data over the coming year. In a pilot test of the technology last year, a juvenile gray seal named Bronx swam 5,000 miles in the first five months, including a two-week trip out to Georges Bank, with dives down 900 feet.
“So we can start to understand the ecology of these animals,” says Dave Johnston, a marine-conservation biologist at Duke University. “Where do these animals go? How often do they travel? How many times a day do they dive, and how deep? How does that overlap with ocean topography? How does it overlap with where people go?” A graduate student will work to see how seals interact with the fishing community. “Right now, we don’t know much, and when people don’t know much, they’re worried and fearful. When there’s more information, we can move to understanding.”
“She’s starting to come up a little bit, guys,” one of the scientists calls out. Tags on the right and left flippers now identify her as seal 141. Someone calls out a checklist: “We got hair, we got skin, we got anal, we got whiskers.” Then everyone suddenly backs away as the waking seal lifts her baffled head. She studies the two-legged beasts all around her in puzzlement, then finally recovers enough at 10:40 to drag herself back to the water and rejoin her herd.
So how will all this change Cape Cod? What will the coming of gray seals mean for the fishermen lying awake at night fretting about how to make the mortgage or pay for fuel? What will it mean for the 500,000 or so vacationers who dream of this place all winter and crowd themselves onto this spit of sand every summer to be revived for another year by nature? What will it mean for Chris Myers, who sometimes starts up out of his sleep at his home in Denver, thinking about the seals and about …
That day in July 2012, Myers and his 16-year-old son, J.J., were swimming toward the breakers at a submerged sandbar 400 yards off Ballston Beach in Truro. He’d been swimming out to the sandbar all his life, to stand on it and throw himself forward with enough momentum to catch a wave for the long ride in.
This time, though, as they were still approaching the sandbar, something hit him, and he knew instantly that it was a shark. “The impact was incredibly shocking and painful,” he recalls. It had him hard by the left leg. With his right leg he kicked furiously at its nose and mouth. “Like kicking a refrigerator,” he says. “No give at all.” But then the shark let go, and after a moment it surfaced, the broad gray back three or four feet across, wheeling up in the tight little span between Myers and his son. Then the huge dorsal fin, slicing up and over. Not a movie. Real life.
Myers looked down to see if the shark had taken off his leg. “Then I realized that was a stupid thing to do,” and the two of them turned to swim toward shore, with J.J. screaming for help the whole way. Myers swam under his own power, or the power of adrenaline. He didn’t notice the pain again till his feet touched the beach. Then, unable to support his own weight, he crumpled onto the sand.
As people gathered around, wide-eyed, Myers looked down at his legs: “There was a lot of flesh and blood. I remember seeing fat and thinking, ‘Boy, these are deep cuts.’” He also felt “incredible relief. I was so elated that this had happened and that I had
It took a few months to get back on a bicycle, and six months before he could run again. But how long before he could swim again at Ballston Beach? He was planning to head back to Cape Cod, as he had every summer for 48 years now. But it was clear that it would be a different Cape Cod for him next time.
The return of the gray seals means that it will be a different, more complicated Cape Cod even for Lisa Sette. She’s a field biologist with the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown and looks the part—a sturdy, outdoorsy woman in her fifties, red-faced, with a quick smile, in a T-shirt and a wool fishing cap. Sette likes to remind people that being bitten by a shark is even less likely than being hit by lightning. But over coffee with a fellow biologist one morning at the start of summer, she also swaps the sort of uneasy questions almost everyone on Cape Cod now sometimes asks: Is it safer to swim when there aren’t any seals around? Or is it safer with a large group of seals nearby, on the theory that sharks steer clear of crowds and tend instead to pick off loners? But having to think about those sorts of questions clearly doesn’t strike her as a bad thing.
Sometimes, lying in bed at night in her house a mile or so inland, Sette can hear the yawping and barking of the gray seals hauled out at Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro. It’s a haunting sound, but also comforting for Sette, who regards the return of the seals as a restoration, not an invasion. Cape Cod has always been a special place, a little wild, a little reckless, an arm of the mainland flung 35 miles into the ocean, out among the whales and the dolphins—and now the gray seals. The sheer number of seals can seem overwhelming for people who aren’t used to them, she acknowledges.
“When you cull a population and then stop, it will rebound,” Sette says, at the beach one morning. “But everything finds its level. There are checks and balances.” Meanwhile, to witness the recolonization in her own lifetime and to be able to walk up over these dunes and see the seals lying there, at home, is for her a kind of miracle.
Cape Cod, even with its traffic jams, and T-shirt shops, and vacation hordes, has somehow become a wilder, more natural place, a Cape Cod of predators and prey, where our own ability to make a living, or pursue a hobby, or swim in absolute safety is no longer quite so sacrosanct. It’s a Cape that can sometimes feel as though it has lost its footing and gone adrift in unknown currents.
But it may just be Cape Cod as it was always meant to be.
SEE MORE: Seals on Cape Cod | Photographs
Richard Conniff’s newest book is The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools,and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth.