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Sealed behind a lens

A big hit from early Internet days was a website connected to a webcam, which was set up in front of a home aquarium. Fish swam back and forth, forth and back, 24/7. Remember that? It went viral. Web pundits opined as to why people were captivated by fish in some random guy’s aquarium. The collective view was that it was the first globally shared transmission of something happening in real life in real time that anyone anywhere could share simultaneously. And like a soap opera, viewers became absorbed in the activities of the key players.

These are reasons I log onto the seal webcam ( in La Jolla. I take a mental health break, see what the harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) are doing, and gain a fresh perspective on my life. Sometimes the seals are there; sometimes not. The tide ebbs and flows. Seals jockey for position. Seagulls strut with impunity around the lounging bodies. I’m a seal voyeur. It’s fun. And maybe you are watching at the same time. For official seal cam operators, docents, and other nature observers, watching seal behavior is more scientific. Since they log hours consistently, I asked if some would share a highlight so I could learn vicariously. In turn, I now share them with you:

A seal is born

Marilies Schoepflin said, “I watched the birth of a seal. The obviously pregnant seal moved up the beach, distancing herself from the water and other seals. Some female seals formed a loose circle around her. One could see the contractions coming fast and strong. A bluish bubble appeared, she glanced back, gave one more push, and the pup emerged still in its sack. Carefully she broke the sack by lightly nudging the pup. Another seal gently checked out the newborn while the mom rested briefly. Soon after, the mom nuzzled her pup, a behavior that promotes bonding. A barrage of sea gulls descended to eat the sack and umbilical cord. When quiet returned to the beach, the pup began nursing.“ [Visit the website for more still photos.]

Practice makes perfect

Pam Thomas said, “I watched a mother seal teach her pup to climb onto the rocks. First she modeled how it could be done, then gently pushed the pup from behind. Over and over she climbed up and beckoned her pup. It seemed futile. Finally the pup began pulling itself up the slippery rock, struggled to reach the top, and at last mastered the maneuver. The mother and pup touched noses, then the pup promptly splashed back into the water. I watched as the once reluctant pup spent a half hour repeating the feat again, again, and again.”

Outplay, outwit, outlast

Generally, abandoned seal pups less than 3 days old won’t survive but Jennifer Rogge has been tracking an exception. She said, “I would watch ‘Rocky’ on the camera at night stealing milk and getting a terrible thrashing from the moms when they awoke to see a strange pup suckling. For 5 weeks, Rocky’s nightly milk raids grew more stealth, with the moms sometimes sleeping through Rocky’s suckling. Now Rocky is self-reliant and thriving; I frequently see Rocky swimming with a pup half his size. Whether Rocky is a he or she I don’t know but this pup deserves the name for never giving up despite the odds and adversity.”

The memory of an elephant

Ellen Shively said, “A rare visitor to San Diego appeared one day at Casa Beach. It was a behemoth next to a harbor seal. When she turned her head, I saw the enlarged snout of a female elephant seal as she slowly moved her bulk onto the beach to join the group of sleeping harbor seals. She flipped sand onto her back with her flippers, a cooling behavior characteristic of this species. A young harbor seal followed close by as she maneuvered her massive body into a depression. After a brief rest, she lugged her body to the water's edge. I was astonished when the young harbor seal followed, the pair heading back into the ocean in lock step. After a couple of laps along the channel, the elephant sea swam away sans harbor seal. Where did she come from, what brought her here, and what possessed the juvenile harbor seal to briefly accompany her are questions yet to be answered.”

Circle of life

According to Marilies Schoepflin, “I saw an adult seal listlessly floating in shallow, raising its head up once in a while. Another seal swam close, trying repeatedly to nudge the weak one’s head above water while pushing them both towards the beach.” Sharon J. LaDuke said, “The two seals, of equal size, submerged then remerge again and again for the entire 4 hours of my cam operation. What looked like grieving seems at odds with what is known about seals’ notoriously solitary behavior.” Marilies Schoepflin said, “The next morning on the sand, the healthy seal rested its head on what was clearly the dead seal's body. Over the course of hours, the healthy seal periodically raised its head and opened it mouth, appearing to vocalize (without sound I can only surmise). A cluster of seals surrounded. The next day the dead seal was gone, returned to the ocean by the tide.”

— Judith Lea Garfield, naturalist and underwater photographer, has authored two natural history books about the underwater park off La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. Send comments to