It’s a rough life being a harbor seal, unless you are Popeye. Don’t get me wrong, Popeye hasn’t always had it easy. She has to hunt with only her right eye, for the other is clouded and of no apparent use.
If you experience a harbor seal in a staring contest with you at the Port, it has to be Popeye, for she’s quite territorial and chases off other seals that want to home in on her easy eats, and the opaque left eye will verify her identity. And she’ll be the one in this position, for normally a wild seal will be flat in the water, allowing a rapid descent backward, or a quick emergency dive forward. Incidentally, if from a distance you see a marine mammal, a seal will usually submerge backward with its nose going under last, while otters will dive forward arching their bodies, that’s one way to tell them apart on the water. I believe seals do the “nose last” dive because it is the quietest descent and disturbs the surface the least, so if they’re hunting, their prey will be less likely to know they are there.
I photographed her next to the Friday Harbor Seafoods floating store catching a few zzzzz’s in this unique vertical position. Her blubber and the air in her lungs allow her to float upright without any apparent flipper movement while still in position to snap to attention should sounds alert her to pending treats. She quickly opened her eyes and looked my way at the sound of the shutter on the camera, so her hearing must be fine.
The feeding of marine mammals of any type is prohibited under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, passed in 1972, but since Popeye is so accustomed to tourist treats it has become a part of her lifestyle, her niche, and since she’s not encouraging even her own pups to emulate her begging from people, everyone looks the other way during such infractions (metaphorically speaking. Who purposefully avoids watching her act?) Her handicapped left eye may also play a part in ignoring such infractions, but my guess is she has adapted to her limited vision and can probably hunt just fine! Those sensitive whiskers help compensate for her vision, for much of their prey comes from under the seaweed, mud and sand on the sea floor.
My first exposure to harbor seals was as a newly minted teenager reading Archie Binn’s young adult novel “Sea Pup” at the Hollywood Public Library in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. That story of a boy my age and the abandoned seal pup he found on the beach after witnessing the pups mother being shot by sport fishermen was also the beginning of my love affair with Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, and part of the reason I live here. Binns wrote a sequel called “Sea Pup Again” about the boy and his seal’s adventures in the San Juans.