Image: John Keatley
Robin Lindsey, photographed at Constellation Park in West Seattle on June 21, 2013

Seals. And caution tape. And garden stakes. And sand. So much sand. This is Robin Lindsey’s world, and she loves it. In fact, the nature photographer will cop to being obsessed with it. As the lead investigator for Seal Sitters, she takes turns with other volunteers to show up when one of the slippery little marine mammals waddles ashore, cordon off the area to keep nosy beachgoers and aggressive off-leash dogs from stressing the vulnerable young pup, and hang out until it slips back into the water. Seal Sitters has deemed 2013 the Year of the Seal, and this August they’ll install a bronze sculpture of a mother and her pup on West Seattle’s Alki Beach to remind us that the shore isn’t ours—it’s on loan.


I was having lunch on Alki with a friend in August 2007, and I saw this mob of people over on the beach. I told my friend, “I have to go check it out.” And it was a little seal pup just surrounded by people. The next morning before sunrise I decided, “I’m going to go down and see if that little pup is back.” Sure enough at like 6:08 in the morning this little head pops up. He was right here and I was right there, and I don’t know what happened. They have these eyes. They just look right into your soul. I was at a low point in my life because my dogs had just died, and this was an opportunity to connect.  

For a long time I was disconnected from nature. When I was a kid my brother had a dark room, and the first time he took me in there and I saw a print come up, I thought it was magic. My goal was to do something important with photography, but instead I went into advertising. I wasn’t making a difference. Maybe that’s why I’m so passionate about what I’m doing now.

Before the sun comes up I’m usually out looking. That’s when people take their off-leash dogs on the beach. It’s early in the morning and they think nobody’s down there. And unfortunately that’s when a lot of the seal pups come up. So we keep an eye out from the crack of dawn until it gets dark. 

I got a call once about a man trying to pet a seal. We got down there and there was a tiny pup and a very inebriated man. Thankfully he was a nice inebriated man. I explained that even though this pup wasn’t going back into the water, he was really stressing it out. Once we got a call about an older gentleman at Lincoln Park who kept trying to put a pup back in the water. People think, “Well, they belong in the ocean. Why are they on shore?”

The majority of the pups we get on our beaches are newly weaned. Once Mom’s finished nursing them, they get all fat; I call them my little blubber balls. That’s supposed to sustain them while they figure out how to catch fish, but they can drop that weight within weeks. So when you see a pup onshore, it’s trying to conserve calories. If someone chases them back into the water and they have to swim to another beach, they’re burning precious calories, and they may not have any to burn. This truly is life and death. 

We’re not perfect. I’ve scared a pup into the water before trying to get a stake into the ground. We just do the best we can do.

Early on, every time I picked up a dead pup I cried. They’re such beautiful little animals. And every time I’d pick one up I’d try to find a stone that looked like its coat. So if it was a dark pup with white spots, I’d try to find a dark stone with white flecks. Finally I had so many rocks in my car and at home, I thought, Well, you have to stop doing this.

They only have a 50 percent chance of surviving their first year. That’s a pretty heavy-duty statistic. As far as I’m concerned, on my watch the pups in West Seattle are going to have a 51 percent chance.

My poor car. It’s got construction cones in it, caution tape, signs, garden stakes—I’ve got everything imaginable in there. So if we get a call right now, I’m going to grab my stakes and tape. If there’s driftwood on the beach, I’ll loop the tape around that. If you stand there too long, I might use you.

There’s always somebody who won’t respect the tape. And they’re going to make a stink about having to walk 15 feet out of their way. But thankfully that’s so rare. Most of the time we have a pup on the beach, we have a ton of people saying, “What do we do? How can we volunteer?” 

We had this crazy-prolific pupping season in 2011. And then last year it was terrible. We didn’t have nearly as many pups, and the ones we did have were excruciatingly thin. We didn’t have any of those fat, happy pups. And I’d see them onshore, we’d protect them for the day, and then we’d never see them again. So we had fewer pups and a much higher mortality rate. And some of them were like four inches shorter than they’ve ever been. Why were they four inches shorter? What does this mean?

There’s no funding. I found a dead pup in the Duwamish at Harbor Island last year, and we all know how toxic the water is there. I asked a friend from Fish and Wildlife what it costs to run a contaminant test. If it was only a couple hundred dollars, I was going to pay it. But it was almost a thousand. If we had money, we’d be able to run more tests and know what was happening. And that’s so critical because harbor seals are an indicator species for the health of our water. If they’re sick and polluted, so is our water. 

This is a 24/7 job. Marine mammals don’t take a holiday.

 

Published: August 2013