The seal was cute at first. Big brown eyes, long thick whiskers, spotted back — you know, harbor seals, they’re effing cute. My sometime swim pal Suzy was describing to me how a sea lion had followed her the other day, and as if on cue, this cutiepie pops up six feet behind her. Except this was a seal, not a sea lion. They’re different. Seals are smaller, supposedly safer. Gentle, even. HA!
Los Angeles is living up to its Endless Summer rep this winter. It’s been HOT. Gorgeous. Eighties. In January. The Pacific is a blue pool of invitation. It beckons from my window.
I know the water is cold — 60 degrees today. But that’s why I wear a half-suit. As often as I can, I swim out to the yellow buoy moored there by the Cabrillo Beach Polar Bears. It’s about a half-mile round trip. The first 10 minutes of cold are brutal, but then you adjust. It’s a challenge, and it’s peaceful, and you run into neighbors out there, which is hilarious (“Hi Kim, how’s it going?” “Nice weather we’re having!” “Sure is beautiful.”), and it’s an accomplishment.
I often do it alone; that’s just how I roll. Fortunately, today I grabbed Suzy, wife of my husband’s co-worker Duane. She lives at Cabrillo, swims at least once a day — in a bathing suit, like a true Polar Bear, no wimpy half-suit. She could swim circles around me.
We’re still wading out when the seal appears. Leopard sharks are shooting past us in the shallows. When I swam last, on Monday, a body got thrown against my legs by the surf. The water was dark, so I couldn’t tell if it was a shark or a skate, and it freaked me out because I do not want to be stung by a ray. But today it’s clearer, and the sharks are clearly visible as such. Leopard sharks — piece of cake. I can handle them. It’s the damn seals I now fear.
Suzy and I start doing the American crawl. As soon as we hit the kelp bed, which isn’t long, Suzy screams like a girl. (Her words.) The seal has run into her. I’m kind of jealous. I love animals, I’m the crazy cat lady. I want a seal to run into me. So then it does. It’s weird. But, you know, it’s a seal. It’s cute. I laugh.
It does it again. And again. It comes up from underneath us and, I don’t know, it grabs us. The water’s murky, so it’s hard to tell what’s going on, and it holds its breath forever, so we’re not even 100 percent sure what it is. Then it finally surfaces — right THERE, flipper-shaking distance. “Hello!” we say. We laugh uproariously. Happy laughter — a seal loves us! Nervous laughter — WTF.
The seal follows us all the way to the buoy. It backs off once we’re out of the kelp, but not far. Stopping to deal with the seal has broken our stride, and we’re a little breathless, so we lie on our backs and stare up at the blue sky. This is the best part, really: relishing being surrounded by water, afloat, at one with the seagulls and pelicans and dolphins — who are also swimming just 100 feet away — and, of course, the seal.
It’s been a special swim. We’ll never forget it. But we hope the seal leaves us alone on the way back. Show’s over. Time to go home.
Instead, when we hit the kelp again, it gets more aggressive than ever. It’s playing rough. This time it’s after Suzy more than me. “Ouch!” she screams. “Evelyn, help me!” It’s hit her thigh, hard. “It stings!” she gasps, and she’s genuinely scared.
“Do you want me to get the lifeguard?” I ask, looking over at the station. There’s no sign of life there. Apparently, the guards haven’t noticed two women screaming and being attacked by a marine mammal.
The seal turns back to me. I can see it swimming up underneath me. It’s lying on its back, its white belly under mine. Is it trying to hug me? To wrestle? To play? To fight? To fuck? For a seal, it’s good-sized — but they’re not as big as sea lions. It grabs my ankle. Then it comes back for my knee. I can’t tell if it’s using its paws or its teeth. Whatever. I tell it to “Stop! Bad seal! Go home!”
It doesn’t listen.
Maybe because I’m in the half-suit, it hasn’t really hurt me, so I tell Suzy to swim ahead. We back out of the kelp bed, watching all around. It’s another 100 feet to shore, and by this point I’m tired and scared. I have a slight fear I can’t make it. But I do, and the seal stops swimming once we can stand.
On shore, Suzy and I assess the damage. She’s got several long red welts on her thigh; one’s bleeding — the seal has broken skin. My right knee is slightly swollen and red. Later, I realize I have surface scratches on both legs, and my toes hurt. Not bad, really. I mean, it was just a seal. Cute little cuddly seal. FU!
We tell the lifeguard because we figure he should know. He seems annoyed we’ve bothered him. “They can be temperamental,” he tells us. Go smoke another one dude. We warn the Polar Bears, Suzy’s usual swimming companions. They swim every day. This has never happened to them. They decide to swim at the other end of the beach. Suzy, true trooper, goes with them, because “that wasn’t a real swim.”
I go home, and I’m kind of in shock, because it’s not every day you get prodded by a pinniped. From my window overlooking the beach, I see a man come out of the water, panicked, panting, bent over double, helped by a veteran Polar Bear. Suzy tells me later he got bit, real puncture wounds, bleeding. The seal is just off shore. Several people line the beach, looking out. Maybe they’re just watching the dolphins, who are putting on a show near the buoy. Or maybe they’re viewing the Harbor Seal from Hell.
I’ll swim again. I love it too much not to. But I don’t know if I’ll ever swim it alone.