The Reaper of the Sea, by Naila Moreira

The Reaper of the Sea

By Naila Moreira

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

We have to learn from the dead to help the living.

The dead seal lies on the table. The bulk of it unignorable: the heavy torpedo-shaped body, gray as a sea in storm; the whiskered head, the flippers; a mound of muscled ocean.

A gaggle of undergraduates duly robed in reusable plastic aprons, wrist guards, and nitrile gloves stares at the gruesome yet strangely beautiful torpedo laid sleepy-eyed on the aluminum. Dre—Andrea Bogomolni, youthful marine mammal pathobiologist—presides. She stands in her element, mane of curly hair knotted back, in worn hoodie, gloves, and waterproof overalls, scalpels and scissors laid out.

“Touch its fur,” she tells us, “open its mouth, look at its teeth. Examine how sharp the claws are. This is your chance to touch a seal.”

We reach out our hands, stroke the firm, sandy fur, thick and resistant to the touch, body rubbery beneath. The tidy line of teeth, pointy white. The vibrissae—the seal’s whiskers—like strands of thick fishing line or plastic twine, a little bumpy, strong. “They’re helical,” Dre says. “That’s the bumpiness you’re feeling.”

We pet the stubby tail. We open the tough fans of the back flippers. Big though it is, about four feet long, this is a young animal, no more than six or eight months old, Dre tells us. She shows us how to sex the seal by lifting the tail, to peer at a male’s one anal opening compared to a female’s two.

The pup’s fringed eyes are half-open as if resting, its snout long and grey with the beginnings of the downturned “Roman nose” characteristic of the gray seal. Its body mottled in gray and brown.

Dre lays a gloved hand on the seal’s pelt. “When we do a necropsy,” she says, “we want to be careful to describe what we see and not jump to conclusions. We don’t want to blame anyone unfairly.”

At the seal’s neck the glaring bit of evidence no one can ignore: an encircling gillnet, cruel necklace. The entanglement has dug a good inch deep into the flesh, gouging a necrotic line above the shoulder blades. Remarkably, on the throat no lesion shows, only the faintest of depressions. Somehow the seal had managed not to choke to death.

Appledore Island
Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island.
Photo courtesy Shaols Marine Laboratory. Click to view larger version.
Appledore Island is a knot of land in a blue apron of sea, bathed in salt breezes. Built of white granite crested by shrubs and grasses, it’s the northernmost representative of the Isles of Shoals, a group of small islands jutting some six miles off the coast of New Hampshire. In the 1800s, luminaries like Thoreau, Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Childe Hassam summered in the hotel and artists’ salon owned and hosted here by poet and writer Celia Thaxter. After a fire razed the buildings in 1914, a new hotel was founded on the next island south, Star Island.

Today, Appledore hosts the Shoals Marine Laboratory. Owned and operated jointly by the University of New Hampshire and Cornell University, the lab runs undergraduate courses, public outreach programs, and research projects. Here on an artist’s residency, I spend my time clinging like a barnacle to ongoing field trips, lectures, and research.

The ocean is a harsh place. One morning, I stand on the island’s boat dock with a group of students before boarding a trawl boat. The trawl fisherman is describing his gear. As we listen, we notice a flock of eider ducks fighting to protect their ducklings from a black-backed gull. The eider clump together with fuzzy babies in the center, heads aggressively jutted upward, quacking an angry urgent chorus at the flying marauder.

Often this tactic works. Not this time. The gull plucks a duckling from their midst, swallows it midflight.

A squeal of dismay goes up from the students.

The fisherman shrugs, grimaces at their distress. “The ocean is eat or get beat,” he says. “Everybody swims around, and every so often someone gets eaten. That’s how it goes.”

A few days on the ocean suffice to recognize that death is integral here. Too much sensitivity to it, and one may as well go home to terrestrial climes.

Regularly, I walk out to the bird blind on the north side of the island that overlooks a gull colony. I’ve taken to coming here to write and observe. In this rickety wooden structure, I’m safe from angry gull parents that that have an unpleasant habit of dive-bombing and spraying poop on unwanted visitors to their nests.

I sit on an overturned, blue five-gallon bucket with my laptop on my knees. A canyon cuts the granite cliffs toward the sea. To the right a fishing boat plies the water, lobster traps visible on the deck. On the blue expanse to the left lie the ledges of Duck Island, home to a seal colony. In a few days I’m scheduled to visit that island on a seal survey, and I eye it curiously through my binoculars.

On the rocks before me birds stand over their chicks, or cuddle them under their breasts, or preen, or watch as the little knots of fuzz stagger about to explore their still-small world of nest and rock. Many know I’m here, and the closer ones eye me through the openings of the blind.

They’re calm, though, with me mostly out of sight. From here I can watch as they feed and tend their fluffy speckled babies. At each nest a male and female take turns, either guarding their young or heading out to sea to fish. Each returning parent regurgitates a slimy meal for both chicks and mate.

A rugged place to live, this, in the blaze of sunlight on white stone, and no protection against storms should they come. Only 50 percent of first chicks will survive, a percentage dropping off for second and third hatchlings. Black-backed chicks burrow into the grasses for shade. One chases its parent, trying to stand in the circlet of its shadow, but the gull unfeelingly walks away. It even once steps on its baby when irritated at the chick’s fumbling around its toes.

By contrast, a parent in the closest herring gull nest arches its wings protectively over its infant. I watch as the gull settles and re-settles its small charge with intimate care beneath its breast. A sympathy wells up in me for this careful bird, so common yet so threatened, in the ways the world threatens us all.

Blackbacked gull with chicks
A great black-backed gull and chicks.
Photo by Naila Moreira.
Seals are a rare conservation victory in the Gulf of Maine.

In the 1800s, a bounty of $2 to $5 a nose lay on their heads, in part because fishermen believed that the seals ate all the fish. By the 1950s, no gray seals and only about 100 harbor seals were counted in the Gulf of Maine.

Then came the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Passed in 1972, the law stipulated that no one could harass, feed, hunt, capture, collect, or kill any marine mammal or part of a marine mammal without a permit.

Slowly the seal population began to recover. From Sable Island, a slender crescent a couple hundred miles from the coast of Nova Scotia where the animals had clung to a foothold, seals returned to breed again in their historical pupping grounds. Today, the sand bars and islands flanking Chatham, Cape Cod make up one of the five most important gray seal haul-outs in the world.

Some 15,000 animals now litter the sandbars of Chatham, Monomoy, and Nantucket—in aerial drone photography looking like a swarm of sand fleas. They attract twice their number in tourists a year to the Chatham fish pier.

“Success, right?” says Dre, spreading her arms. “But with success comes conflict.”

I join students to tour a second boat, this time the vessel of a gillnet fisherman. He shows us his lines, explains the difference in the distances of knotting, the gauge of the line. “The thinner the twine, the fishier the net,” he says.

Thinner line, though, tends to get more bycatch—unwanted, nonsalable fish and other sea creatures that end up in the net. Like, for instance, seals.

Seals have a maddening habit of seeing a deployed gillnet as a free meal. Worse, the pingers fishermen attach to their nets to warn off whales and dolphins tend to call the seals in. They swim down the net, plucking off fish.

“Mostly they don’t get entangled,” the gillnetter says. “But every so often we get lucky and kill one.”

A stunned silence greets his statement. “I know, I know, they’re cute,” he says. His voice is deprecating with an edge of defensive apology. “But they’ll eat every fish off my line.”

He’s speaking partly to shock us, I think—but also partly to impress on the students of this sustainable fisheries course that not all is as simple in this ocean of stakeholders as an idealistic young mind might envision.

The growth in seal populations has come with punishing costs to fishermen in the gulf. Every fisherman we meet—the trawler, the gillnetter, a lobsterman—complains about seals.

“Seals will go down a line of lobster traps and open every door,” lobster fisherman Damon Frampton tells the students.

To make matters worse, a few months after my stay at the marine lab, last September, a surfer was killed by a great white shark off Cape Cod. As the number of seals in the Northeast has grown from protection, so has the population of newly protected great whites, which feed on seals. The fatality prompted renewed calls from Cape Cod residents for seal removal to protect swimmers.

Compared to the West Coast, though, where an estimated 300,000 seals make their home, the population of 30,000 to 50,000 animals currently on the East Coast remains small. And tourists tend to value both seals and sharks despite the threat. Seal watching contributed $179 million to the Massachusetts economy in 2014, according a University of Vermont study—60 percent more than either commercial fishing or whale watching (about $110 million each).

A study by Jennifer Jackman and colleagues in the May 2018 Marine Policy, meanwhile, showed that among three stakeholder groups—tourists, the general public, and fishermen—all opposed lethal control of seals and sharks on average, with tourists most opposed.

It’s fishermen that remain most in favor of lethal seal control, noted the Jackman study.

“I think part of the issue is, we as humans aren’t quite sure what to do with all this wildlife in our backyard,” Dre told Boston’s WGBH in October, “and how do we interact with them. And we don’t know because it’s a relatively new phenomenon, here.”

Given the chance to be anonymous, some locals are brutally straightforward. “These seals are like vermin,” ran an online comment on one Nantucket Chronicle article. “They are a scourge to Nantucket. The seals are going to destroy our beaches and ruin Nantucket as we now know it. There should be a hunting season on seals like there is for deer, and the herd should be culled.”

Seals on a rocky island.
Harbor seals on Duck Island.
Photo by Andrea Bogomolni, taken under NMFS LOC 20412.
The Center for Coastal Studies’s Owen Nichols, a youthful, bearded scientist with muscular arms, looks like he’d be as at home in a pub trading fish tales as in the classroom where I watch him articulately laying out the parameters of fisheries science.

“It’s funny how you compartmentalize,” he tells me. “One day I can be working on a fishing boat and just flinging dozens of fish into the hold without a second thought. And yet if I stop a moment, I can hold a single fish and think how beautiful it is, what a miracle of nature.”

He shows me a favorite photo he’s taken of a fishing weir where he runs a research project. A fisherman, silhouetted at sunrise, tends the nets from a skiff. On the photo Owen has superimposed a quote from Derek Walcott’s Omeros:

was he the only fisherman left in the world
using the old ways, who believed his work was prayer,
who caught only enough, since the sea had to live
because it was life?

Seals on shore.
Grey seals on Duck Island.
Photo by Andrea Bogomolni, taken under NMFS LOC 20412.
Among his projects, Owen works with fishermen to try to reduce bycatch. The traditional method of the fish weir tends to work well, he says, creating holding pens from which fishermen can discriminate between wanted and unwanted live fish.

He’s also trying to shrink the number of fish plundered from fishing lines by seals. He hopes the work will improve the relationship between fishermen and the animals. In one project, he affixed underwater cameras to the nets of a fish weir to observe the seals mid-pillage.

“We found the seals were mostly in those fish weirs at night,” he says.

Normally, fishermen haul nets at dawn, because fish are most active at night. But with seals present, the calculus changes.

“If you simply haul in the afternoon, you get double the catch,” Owen says. “Just by making a simple change—it was a big cultural change for this family of folks—we were able to make a big difference.”

We discuss the gillnetter’s claim that a dead seal is a lucky catch.

“Fishermen will say that, and it’s kind of shocking,” Owen acknowledges. “But if you sit down with them over a coffee or a beer, you pretty soon find out it’s not what they want.”

The damage to their nets is costly, he says. In general, fishermen would prefer not to have to interact with seals at all.

Owen’s words remind me of comments by David Goethel, the trawl boat captain. David depends on an efficient operation to stay afloat. The more bycatch, the more his crew must haul and sort for every dollar they bring in.

“Our goal as fishermen is to only catch what we can keep,” David says. “There’s two reasons. One, is because it’s the morally correct thing to do. The other is because we have to retain crew.”

With expenses rising and rewards declining, fewer young people are entering fishing, David said. He’s searching for crew members now and has struggled to find good help. He fired his last crew member for suspected opioid abuse. For now, until he finds someone new, he’s fishing by himself.

He admits it’s dangerous. “I’m 64 years old,” he says, voice tight with regret. “We’re a bunch of old men staggering around the ocean.”

View from the boat.
Shoals undergraduate researcher Jess Veo takes research photographs of seals from the deck of the R/V Heiser while Andrea Bogomolni of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution looks on.
Photo by Naila Moreira.
The knife slides with surprising ease into the skin below the throat, incising the blubber beneath—about an inch of white fat, shot through with blood vessels.

“In a healthy, weaned seal pup, this could be up to three inches thick,” says Dre. “This animal is not incredibly robust.”

She passes around a flap of blubber, rubbery, silky, crested by water-repellent fur. Slowly she shaves it away from the muscle. The muscle near neck and shoulders lies dark, too dark for a healthy animal—“this is a sign of hemorrhage,” says Dre, “that’s why it’s so dark.”

As she opens the animal under our eyes, she begins looking for clues to its death. “We don’t know if this seal died because of this entanglement, or if it was already sick, and that’s why it became entangled,” she says. “We may be able to find out, but for now, we just want to carefully describe what we see.”

More signs of trauma emerge as we cut deeper. We hand around the slippery, heavy organs. The kidneys, large oblongs blotched with white—a sign of disease. The lymph nodes greatly enlarged, and dark red rather than peach or beige like the blubber as they would be in a healthy animal. The lungs, too, show signs of pneumonia in pale, raised patches. Inflammation and fluid have pressed them against the ribs, leaving impressed stripes in the tissue.

The interior of the animal is still partly frozen from storage, and Dre begins to struggle to penetrate it. Students pull the skin back while Dre wraps her hands around the thoracic cavity and tugs to separate the various organs and segments.

We turn to the abdomen: a tangle of viscera, sausage-like links of the intestines, the bulge of stomach, the multiply chambered liver. Dre notices chunks of ice. She scrapes some out, spreads both palms filled with crystals.

“This isn’t normal,” she says. “This shows there was a lot of fluid in the abdominal cavity, possibly due to septicemia.” Throughout the animal lie signs of the same ailment: the golf-ball sized submandibular lymph nodes beneath the jaw near the site of the entanglement, the enlarged liver and spleen.

The seal on the necropsy table, Dre tells us, likely hadn’t yet learned how to avoid a net. Young males are the ones she most often sees entangled.

“They’re inexperienced, looking for some food, and they get themselves caught,” she says.

As they grow, the plastic tightens like a noose.

The animal, though, had many problems atop massive infection. Its stomach—cut open in great glee by the marine parasitology class—is packed with white, strandlike parasitic nematodes. A cheer rises up from their dissection table when they open the organ. They fill vial after vial with parasitic samples.

On the back of the seal’s head, too, well above the gillnet lesion, a hematoma lies jellylike and red beneath the skin of the skull. The pup somehow suffered a blunt-force injury. Because the beach where the animal had been found was sandy, and the pup had been alive when first sighted, it most likely did not hit rocks when it stranded. Something else caused the trauma.

It’s impossible to know for sure what caused the injury, and Dre herself refuses to speculate. However, for slower-swimming right whales, ship collisions and net entanglements are known to be the two top causes of death. Seals normally swim fast enough to avoid boats, but perhaps a sick pup could not.

As the necropsy draws to a close, the lab tech and a couple interns skin the seal to use the pelt in educational practice. Later, as I sit with others in the common room, I still almost feel the silkiness of the organs between my gloved fingers. The smallest lymph nodes, red and soft. The muscle, striated, slippery, strong, dark like deer meat. The strange flaps of the liver.

Entanglement around neck extends down through dorsal surface from lateral midline to lateral midline but does not extend into tissue at ventral surface. Only light impression noted underneath entanglement. Material around neck is consistent with monofilament gillnet 12-inch mesh. Knots at six-inch intervals. Ends appear clean-cut, not torn. Abdominal: copious amounts of frozen ice crystals throughout. Half a liter of fluid, red-tinged. Neck/head region: extensive area of hemorrhage anterior to entanglement. Severe hemorrhaging at posterior part of head—gelatinous, red blood. Right and left lateral associated circumference: severely enlarged lymph nodes with associated hemorrhage. Extensive necrotic tissue from blubber down to muscle at dorsal entanglement site. Decreases at lateral right and left circumference.

“Impacted lungs, reddish fluid in the abdominal cavity probably from the liver, an inflamed and mottled spleen,” Dre tells me, “all signs of septicemia, probably from infection at the entanglement site.”

View of gulls and island from the blind.
The Appledore Island gull colony from the gull blind.
Photo by Naila Moreira.
A week later, I ascend again into the gull blind. It is my last day on the island. I shut the door, wipe a gull shit off my hat, and sweep my gaze around the calming colony. Then I pause.

The herring gull at the same nest I noticed the other day, so assiduously protecting its chick, hunches on the stone. It has a strangely ruffled look. I lift my binoculars.

The bird has suffered a terrible wound, I realize with a chill: a gash over its head from one eye to the other. The feathers on the crown are gone, throat and neck feathers roughed-up and darkened. The insult itself has partly healed to black and reddish flesh. The bird shakes its head to and fro from time to time in evident discomfort. Its little chick patters about.

Its left eye looks at first like it is gone. I grip my binoculars, stare fiercely. After a time I determine that the cut only underscores the bird’s socket—both eyes are still intact. And to my relief, the mate after a while flies in. At least this partner can still help.

It too, though, is under stress, bearing a string of yellowed feathers across its breast. It regurgitates a meal for the chick. If this mate can remain healthy, perhaps the injured bird will live. If the hurt gull dies, the chick almost certainly will, too.

Despite my brave words about facing the wild’s truths I am undone by this scene. I cry and cry. Into my sobs I pour all my sorrow at the nature of the world. I cry for the suffering gull, I cry for the chick now so unlikely to survive. I cry for its struggling mate. I cry for my own aging parents, for the fear of loss, for mortality and its brutal exigencies. I cry for the fragility of sea life amid our human onslaught. I cry because it is my last day on Appledore and tomorrow these wide white boulders shining in the sun, studded with gulls and peeping chicks, will be a memory, behind me.

Photographing on the boat.
Shoals undergraduate researcher Jess Veo on the R/V Heiser.
Photo by Naila Moreira.
Seals lie like sacks on the stony ledges of Duck Island. They raise their heads, lazy and unthreatening with long-lashed eyes, to watch as our boat chugs slowly by. They seem merely curious, but when the boat approaches too closely they drop to the water like lead plummets.

We’re on a seal survey aboard the marine lab’s smaller vessel, the R/V J.B. Heiser. An undergraduate intern leans forward, her blond ponytailed frame a dark cutout in the light, camera raised to her eye, long lens jutting forward. Later, she’ll download the photos to census and scrutinize the seals for signs of entanglement or disease.

Our captain calmly navigates unevenly shallow waters. A complex of jutting rocks and ledges, Duck barely deserves the name island, but it’s the only part of Shoals where seals haul out. Remote, empty of human habitation, and safe, Duck Island in that sense resembles Chatham, where the sandbars are too unstable and disconnected and wet for human use. An average of 600 seals rest on Duck each low tide.

In lurching seas, we cling to the bars of the boat. A herd of seals wriggles nervously into the water.

Worried about disturbing mothers with pups, Dre leans in, asks the captain to go a little faster. He speeds the engine. The seals calm.

“Do they like the sound?” I inquire, a little surprised.

“They just don’t like people staring at them,” she says. “They’re smart. This way they know we’re just passing by.”

She points out an area with many seals already dipping and sliding in the waves of a cove among the rocks. “We call that the playpen,” she says, “because there are always seals in there, playing. Always.”

The seal surveys form part of a larger set of collaborative studies. Dre and Owen are teaming on an effort to bring fishermen and scientists together to exchange information, train one another, and work jointly on research projects. They’ve gotten authorization for fishermen to bring in dead seals for necropsies so they can study the animal’s stomach contents and diets. They’ve even had fishermen as authors on scientific papers.

“I’m a community scientist,” says Dre. “That’s what I prefer to call myself now.”

Dre has the kind of warm, inclusive personality that makes anyone feel welcome. Leaning in as though telling a secret, she makes each conversation partner feel like the only person in the world. She invited one fisherman to a seal necropsy, and made a friendly bet with him about what the seal’s stomach contents would be.

“He lost the bet, by the way,” Dre says. “He thought it would be all cod.” Instead, the seal had been snacking on silver hake.

In part because seals were absent from the ecosystem for so long, in part because research at sea presents so many challenges, the relationship of the animals with their home territory remains poorly understood.

Figuring it out together with all stakeholders, however, appears critical. A review by the National Academy of Sciences in 2008 found that getting all resource users involved in management planning leads to greater legitimacy, more compliance, and better decision quality.

To reach a better sense of exactly what the seals are eating, researchers are working with DNA analyses instead of heavily relying on leftover bone. To understand seals’ impact on water quality, the collaborative group also spearheaded a study that showed, to their surprise, that water near seal haul-outs actually had better water quality.

“The main goal of the Marine Mammal Protection Act wasn’t to protect seals because they were cute and fuzzy,” Dre says. “It’s because they play an ecological role we haven’t had time to understand.”

Gulls on the island at twilight.
Great black-backed gulls and chicks on Appledore Island.
Photo by Naila Moreira.
The sea is a forbidding, forbidden place. We penetrate it only barely. The fisherman skates the upper seas, drags up secrets he won’t plunge to observe in place. The diver dips into the waters for a mere glimpse of enormity. Even the submarine’s descent finds a blackness that offers little by way of vision or insight. And the landsman, like me, stands on the shore and wonders, and partly yearns, and partly fears.

“To the sea I go with love and terror,” writes author Pearl Buck, “for actually I am afraid of water and I know why … I am never deceived by calm under sunshine or even under the moon. The madness is there, hidden in the depths of unknown caverns. And yet I go back to the sea again and again, although I do not want to stay long and there are certain times of year when I would not want to be near it for any reason.”

For land and seaman alike, the ocean is a thing that spits us out or kills us.

No wonder then that seals are such an emblem. It’s the seal that underpins the legend of the selkie—a shapeshifter who sheds her pelt to come to shore as woman, dons it to return to seal unless it is thieved from her. She is wild but capturable, a fantasy through which humans can own a piece of sea much as they seek to own and master Gaia, the feminine terrestrial earth.

More than any other being, seals traverse the boundary between land and sea, human and inhuman climes. Within the waves they navigate with absolute surety. They’re pilgrims between waters parting to let the grey shape through, a ghost, a wraith, a myth, a starship in a sky studded by fish, squid, zooplankton, diatoms.

Fears splice the waters for them too. The great white sharks, a battalion of white missiles, cruise nearby with jaws of death. For seals to ply the ocean and survive remains a test of skill and strength. A magic trick, quicksilver, shapeshifter against brute power, against the predatory prehistoric soul of the deep.

Calls to control seal populations to prevent tragedies like last autumn’s shark attack—while we continue our recreational use unchanged—speak to an age-old human desire to tame what threatens us, even as part of us relishes the power and danger of the sea.

One thing is bigger, though, than the ocean. It’s us.

In the face of the juggernaut that is humanity, even the sea lies helpless. Our lives meter its chemistry, its productivity, its number of fish, its mammalian abundance. If we choose to cull the seals, they will, quite simply, die. One more of the earth’s mysteries under human jurisdiction.

Cutting open a dead seal may seem a gruesome way to enter the enigma of the ocean and its relation to humanity. But the seal’s body, its each perfectly organized organ, as human below the skin as if it truly were a selkie, invites me into wonder: into wonder transformed to pain, into pain transformed back to wonder, a discovery of place and of place disrupted.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘Oh, poor you, you have to do the necropsies, you don’t get to work with live animals.’ But I think it’s fascinating,” Dre tells me. “We have to learn from the dead to help the living.”

Late in my stay at Appledore, the sun that has glittered over most of my visit gives way to cloudbank. Fog floats over the waters like breath—an embodiment, an identity composed not singly but multiply, not only of the living but the dead, of each instance of birth and each moment of destruction. Perhaps there’s hope in it after all, destruction to support new sprouts: it’s like fuel, this living and dying, living and dying, the engine of the sea.



Naila MoreiraNaila Moreira teaches at Smith College and has been writer in residence at the Forbes Library and Shoals Marine Laboratory. Her second chapbook, Water Street, won the New England Poetry Club Jean Pedrick Prize. She’s also worked as a journalist, environmental consultant, and Seattle Aquarium docent.

Header photo, great black-backed gull nesting pairs in the sunset over Appledore Island, by Naila Moreira. Photo of Naila Moreira by Jermane Stephinger. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.