“Two harbor seals at your eleven o’clock.” I put down my binoculars and point. “They’re even with the next point of land, on the largest piece of ice.”
“I see them now,” Captain Gary says, turning the wheel of the Viewfinder to starboard. “Any more after that?”
“Nope,” I say, “once we pass this group, you have a clear line to the glacier.”
Ahead of us Northwestern Glacier collapsed down the valley in its slow tumble of blue ice, the cliffs on either side still new and raw. In the pinch of this narrow fjord there was no space for eyes to rest, as the waterfalls in their carved chutes pulled sight up to the hanging glaciers so tall in their crystalline silence that they seemed to have replaced the sky, or else drew eyes down to water so still that drifting ice mingled with reflected clouds. At the far end of the fjord Northwestern Glacier itself gave motion to the color blue.
But my own sight did not catch at the glacier, or at the waterfalls. Instead my eyes found rest in the small, dark shapes atop the ice. Harbor seals. As Gary picked his way between ice in still water, and the passengers on the bow stood in silence staring at the tumbling height of Northwestern Glacier, I watched the groupings on the ice. Unlike sea lions, their rowdy relatives, harbor seals live in a world of caution and quiet. This fjord was their home, and our goal was to give them the space they required to thrive in the harsh environment of Northwestern Arm.
Harbor seals are creatures that live deep, quiet lives. Capable of diving up to 1,400 feet in search of fish, these animals have the ability to slow their heart rate from 80 beats per minutes down to 3 or 4 beats per minute. They have the widest distribution of any species of seal worldwide, and their mottled color can range from pearly silver to nearly black. As true seals, they lack external ear flaps and are unable to rotate their hind flippers to walk on land, meaning these animals are slow and clumsy out of the water but rich with grace and agility beneath the waves.
Harbor seals frequent glacial fjords throughout the summer, taking advantage of a space where they can rest and raise their pups in safety. Few predators frequent the fjords; of all the pods of transient orca that pass through the area, only one pod had been observed swimming past the shallow moraine left as Northwestern Glacier retreated: the AT1 transients, or Chugach transients, a pod which specialized in the hunting of harbor seals in icy environments. This pod of orca has decreased in numbers, however, and today holds only 7 members, meaning the harbor seals sit in relatively safe atop the ice of Northwestern Arm.
The safety of this space is part of what makes glacial fjords the perfect nursery. In April, the first harbor seal mothers emerge onto the ice near the glacier to give birth to their pups. Throughout May and June, the pups nurse on the safety of the ice, resting beside their mothers. Though these seal pups will grow to be able to spend 30 minutes at a time underwater, with an insulating layer of blubber composing up to 30% of their body mass, in their early days of life they have both less blubber and less energy to spend on keeping themselves warm. This is why, in April, May, and June, as well as in the months to follow in which the adults would molt, we at Major Marine take special care not to disturb these animals.
NOAA likewise takes a special interest in these animals. Since 2015, NOAA has suggested voluntary guidelines to use when approaching harbor seals. These suggestions include creating an approach plan to avoid startling seals, and striving to keep harbor seals at a distance of 500 yards without compromising safe navigation. NOAA also suggests minimizing the wake of the vessel and reducing noise from the PA system when in the vicinity of harbor seals. Traveling through areas of thickest ice should be avoided, as this provides the greatest habitat for harbor seals.
Major Marine Tours takes these voluntary guidelines very seriously. Inside each wheelhouse, a sign lists the dates of the harbor seal pupping season, when pups are most vulnerable, and lists ways to minimize the impact caused to harbor seals. As most of our captains have gained their experience from working on these very waters, their local knowledge of harbor seals’ habits make them perfectly qualified to be at the forefront of protecting these animals.
Ultimately, it comes down to having a set of eyes trained in the nuances of what it means to live life as a harbor seal. This is why I stand in the wheelhouse beside Captain Gary as we approach Northwestern glacier, our eyes scanning ice through binoculars to detect hints of the animals we seek to protect. This is why the years of experience our captains bring to the fjords makes all the difference as we work to keep harbor seals safe.
The harbor seals themselves, however, follow no such laws. At Northwestern Glacier, the inquisitive nature of harbor seals draws them from their underwater world to the waters just beside our vessel, where they watch us through their large, round eyes. It takes something special to pull a person away from the sheer beauty of Northwestern glacier, and harbor seals have just that charm. The seals rise and sink around us, their heads dark bubbles between the ice, and I listen to the laughter onboard as camera lenses trying to track their path. With the use of provided binoculars, guests watch the seals live their silent lives on the distant drifts of ice, and are always amazed when the seals seem unperturbed by the glacial ice crashing down from the face of Northwestern Glacier or Aialik Glacier to their back.
More often than not, when I ask someone their favorite photo from the trip, the photo they show me contains the sleepy smile of a harbor seal content on the ice.
So if you journey with us to Northwestern Glacier or Aialik Glacier, let your thoughts quiet for a moment to think of this world from the round eyes of the harbor seal. See the ice as a place of rest, not as an obstacle. Hear the thunder of the glacier as a call of safety. And when a crewmember comes to point you toward the dark shapes atop the thickest ice, then take a moment to look into the life of a harbor seal.
Tamara Lang is a senior deckhand with Major Marine Tours in Seward. She is a writer of creative nonfiction and the author of “Upstream: A Written and Photographic Journey up the Los Angeles River.” Her writing and her travels can both can be followed on facebook at Tamara Lang Writes, or at tamaralang.com.