Elephant seals and the wilds of Manhattan

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My Brooklyn buddy Ronnie recently sent me an article published on Nurture New York’s Nature website about New York harbor as Henry Hudson first found it back in 1609. The area was rich with abundant and diverse wildlife—as the article puts it, “Bears and wolves and beavers and more. Packs of them. Millions of them. New York, primeval. Functional and healthy. Bountiful.”

What struck me most was not how different New York is today, but this statement that followed: “For Europeans coming from a nature-depleted Europe whose soils had already been over-exploited to the bone by millennia of intensive agriculture, such proliferation was a promise incarnate.” And this was speaking of Europe as it was in 1609.

I forget that about much of the Old World, how denuded so much of it is of significant wildlife and how it has been for so very long. Some years ago, we met a French couple living in St. Louis. They had a daughter about Claire’s age, so we got together with them from time to time, them speaking fairly good English and us making noble attempts at bad French. One beautiful Sunday, we went to the zoo. For the husband of the French couple, the exotic creatures—lions, elephants, tigers—held only passing interest. But he was fascinated by the American wildlife—partly, I think, because it was unfamiliar to him. Wolves, rattlesnakes, black bears, mountain lions… as we saw each of these creatures, we would have the same conversation: “Now, zees one, where does eet leev?” “Here. Well, in America.” “Oh, laaa!”

At the time, I thought he was impressed and alarmed that America was home to so many dangerous creatures. And I’m sure that was a little bit of it. But now, I realize that part of his response was pure wonder that these animals still existed in the wild at all in a place so overrun by civilization.

And that got me thinking about elephant seals. Our recent California trip was one long string of highlights, strung together like, well, a lot of really cool things happening one right after another. But even in that abundant milieu, one highlight that stands out was seeing elephant seals. Scores of them. Hundreds of them, in the wild, stretched out at their land-based rookery just north of San Simeon on California’s Central Coast.

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It. Was. Amazing. We had been seeing a fair amount of wildlife all along the way—sea otters, harbor seals, hawks galore and even some deer—but this was a whole different level of being reminded that, no matter how much we plow it under and pave it over, Earth is still first and foremost a natural place. These hundreds of creatures we saw lounging on the beach just yards away were merely the early arrivers of the 15,000 who return here twice a year. The ones we saw were all adult females and juveniles of both sexes. The massive breeding bulls—they can weigh 2-1/2 tons or more—would arrive later. According to the Friends of the Elephant Seal, “the Northern Elephant Seal… spends eight to ten months a year in the open ocean, diving 1,000 to 5,000 feet deep for periods of fifteen minutes to two hours, and migrating thousands of miles, twice a year, to its land based rookery for birthing, breeding, molting and rest.” When they are in the open ocean, the adult males live and feed near the Aleutian Islands. The females and juveniles live further south, as much as 5,000 miles offshore. Some females have been reported as far west as Hawaii. We count ourselves as very lucky getting to see these magnificent creatures up close, holding their own along the increasingly less wild Pacific Coast. Maybe a little less lucky getting to be downwind of them. Wow.

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Here in the Midwest, we get plenty of reminders that we share this planet with other species too. Too often, it’s as roadkill along the highway. But we also see hawks and other raptors along the highway, not just surviving, but actually thriving. And as human and animal territories collide, animals are becoming more urbanized, more adept at living with their human neighbors. Rabbits, raccoons and, unfortunately, skunks are doing quite well, thank you, in parts of the city and suburbs. The once endangered Canada Goose has become a nuisance on golf courses and in suburban office parks. A pair of peregrine falcons that nests on the fire escape of the Uptown Theater is just one of several that call Chicago home. And last spring, a young coyote wandered into a Quizno’s sandwich shop in the Loop downtown [it was captured and released unharmed].

Sharing space with wild creatures is not without its challenges. Just ask any suburban gardener about deer. And then there are bears. My brother lived on Kodiak Island for a while, where there are apparently more bears than people—Kodiak brown bears, to be precise, larger than grizzlies. The local newspaper would routinely report on any bear scat found around school playgrounds, and he said anytime you went camping or hiking, you always wore a side arm and you always sang or talked to yourself, because the last thing you wanted to do was surprise a bear.

But voracious deer and ferocious bears aside, there is something exciting, renewing and humbling about sharing living space with wild animals. I’m glad we do.

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