A thousand or more northern elephant seals sprawled across the beach when I arrived for my volunteer docent duty yesterday. These intrepid seals travelled about 2500 miles to this beach to lose their dead skin and old fur. They must haul out and remain on land for four weeks in order to molt. We call this shedding of the dead epidermis and old fur a catastrophic molt.
I posted myself at the very south end of the Piedras Blancas boardwalk because it harbored a dozen or more elephant seals in various stages of molt. This made it easier to point and show to the human visitors what is going on with the seals.
A female seal’s molt was evident—chunks of brown fur had fallen from her face leaving a bright and silvery appearance. The liberation from old and tired had begun. But from her neck to her tail, the old brown fur had just begun to shed leaving her looking worn and disheveled. Her huge round eyes peered at me. Suddenly, a simpatico sense cloaked me.
The spring winds flowed over the choppy teal sea and stung my face with salty air. A pair of gopher snakes slowly slithered inches from my feet. I hoped they would soon feast on a batch of newborn ground squirrels that run rampant on the bluffs growing obese from the junk food visitors feed them despite the plethora of signs that read, “Do Not Feed The Animals.”
Yes, a catastrophic molt is in progress. Normally I would quickly back away from the harmless reptiles. My skin would crawl like a thousand snakes wriggling en masse under my flesh. But that didn’t happen. I was happy to watch the brown and gold serpents go a huntin’. And I knew if I left them without guardian that the visiting humans might harm or disturb them.
A young couple– he tall and handsome, she exquisitely attractive–and their active 3-year-old son made their way down the bluff-top boardwalk. The snakes were inches from them, so I gave the family warning so that they would not be surprised. The boy was beside himself with joy and wanted to touch the snakes. Wisely, his father said no.
“Would you like to touch some elephant seal fur?” I asked the child.
From her motorized wheelchair, the boy’s mother tilted her face up at me and said, “I’d love to touch it.” Her left wrist twisted like an old oak root, but she lifted her manicured fingers to touch the fur, and encouraged her son to do so, as well. The boy said the underside of the fur felt like the Velcro on his safari-style pants. And it does.
He climbed up the boardwalk railing, looked directly at me and asked, “Are you old?” His mother, fashionably coiffed and made up, opened her eyes wide and exclaimed, “Josh, that’s a wrong question.”
I laughed and answered, “Yes I am old. I like being old.”
“Why?” the curious lad queried.
“Because I know things now that I never knew before.” I twirled my silver locks between my fingers and added, “My hair is silver now, like that seal sleeping in the sun. It is new to me and it means that I am moving forward.”
Then I played a count the fingers game with him to count exactly how old I might be. I sensed relief from his mother, and we returned to pointing out seals in various stages of molt.
She shivered in the wind. Her husband took his jacket and wrapped it around her thin shoulders. He suggested that it was time to move on. “I don’t want you to get a chill,” he reminded her when she said she was fine as she watched her curious son absorb all that was happening on the windy bluffs.
It’s these tiny vignettes that stick inside of me. They’re minute tales worthy of a novel that I would have never read before I began my catastrophic molt.
Sometimes it frightens me because as the dead epidermis and old hair falls, my new silver hair absorbs a fresh view and understanding of life’s elements. It’s not all glorious enlightenment because there are some life elements that I’d rather not perceive. But like the seal when its molt has completed and it must return to the sea, and then confront those that wish to consume it, there is no other choice but to outwit, out think, or simply out swim the predators.
To be sure, there will always be those who consume more than they need. This is the difference with being human as opposed to being a seal that dodges hungry sharks or killer whales that consume only what is necessary.
I wish that we were more like gopher snakes or sharks that hunt only what they need.
Molting takes time. I’m not much into time, except for the moment. I let the old fur conceal or distract my life mission or life goal.
Today I felt solidarity with the molting mammals of the sea. My life’s mission slowly exposes itself during my personal catastrophic molt.