On a Sunday afternoon this fall, paddling head-on into the breeze along Point San Pablo shoreline in Richmond, two friends and I met a harbor seal. It was more than a fleeting encounter; I’ll remember that seal the rest of my life.
We had gone as far as Castro Point to peer at the rust-and-saltwater-eaten hull of a sunken boat. Turning around to head back to the harbor, we pushed our paddles into the brown Bay water, like sewing needles piercing liquid fabric over and over again—or that’s how I imagine paddles look from below. And maybe it’s what intrigued the seal.
A silver head popped out of the water behind our boards, at first a little ways off and then just five or six feet. We cooed and called hello. Large eyes examined us. The seal slipped inches then feet underwater, blurring into the turbid Bay before surfacing in front of the boards. It took our full measure, and we cooed some more until the moon face sank from sight.
Or so we thought. Because the seal was right behind us again, diving under one board then another, springing up just ahead. It got close enough that kneeling, not standing, on my paddleboard seemed smart. The game lasted for 25, maybe 30 minutes, until we passed the pier extending from Point Molate. I’ve run across a lot of seals while paddling over the years, but never one so eager to engage.
For most of us, certainly for me, it’s rare to experience individuality in wildlife. Maybe we sense that it’s there, but we almost never have the opportunity to witness the richness of wild animal lives, and we can barely dip our paddles into their mental world. And yet glimpses of it spark our humanity.
Citizen scientist Bill Leikam has incredible stories to tell about the selfhood of the gray foxes he’s been observing daily for a dozen years in the Palo Alto Baylands. A taste of what he’s learned is chronicled in science writer Hannah Hindley’s article “How to Be a Fox.” She also offers insight into the field of ethology, which Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky describes as the process of “interviewing an animal in its own language … what it’s all about is recognizing that other species out there are functioning in sensory modalities we can’t even guess at.”
Thinking now about that curious seal, surfacing into our airy world as we sloshed into its watery one, who knows what drew it to us—probably nothing like my fanciful visualization of paddles and sewing needles (Humans, so sight oriented!). Hindley’s story pushes me, and maybe you, to consider that if a long face-to-face encounter can feel exceptional, then all we still don’t know about nonhuman life and minds is thrilling.