Song Sisters on the Shore

“Time to get up!” The 4-year-old girl sang one of her wake-up songs, her mother kneeling encouragingly by her side. Since she was now wide awake, maybe she she figured the other baby should wake up too.

On the beach below, the seal pup stirred. They have really good hearing, and perhaps the music in the girl’s voice had attracted her attention in a way that regular speech hadn’t.

Harbor Seal pup on Salish Sea shore

Harbor seals have to be able to hear well. Imagine that the little human girl on the beach was a baby seal girl. Let’s call her Lina, since her species name is Phoca vitulina. She’s swimming in murky Puget Sound waters on a day like today, with a stiff south wind chopping the sea surface, tidal current going in and out, other animals swimming by. If you’re Lina, it’s pretty hard to see your mother even if she isn’t far away, and hard for her to see you as well. How could you feel safe and secure, and be reassured that your mother knows exactly where you are?

Like other baby harbor seals, Lina probably began to “talk” just a few hours after she was born, making what scientists term “mother attraction calls.” [1] In just two days of life, she developed her own individual calls — for those babies to successfully follow their mothers on land and sea, it’s important that the mothers can pick out their baby’s voice among the other pups calling their own mothers.

Both human mothers and seal mothers want to make sure their young ones are safe. Human parents rarely leave their child alone, but seal parents often leave their pup on the beach while they go fishing; for seals, the beach is safer than the sea because their predators—for instance, the orcas that we humans so admire in this region—don’t usually make it up there. And for the same reason, often a seal will just haul out on the beach to rest after a long hunt.

Lina was fortunate because a couple of devoted people were watching out for her, including a kind passerby and Robin Lindsey, one of the founders of Seal Sitters. And the neighbors who were out for a Sunday morning walk along the beach were interested and respectful, especially the little girl who spontaneously sang to the baby on the beach.

"Lina" looks out to the Salish Sea

Young seals are known to pick up and mimic human sounds. And some seals appear to be singers; another contemplative naturalist writes about an encounter with seal song here.

After a few minutes, the seal pup stretched, then turned itself around and glided back into the sea.

Harbor Seal pup "Lina" heads back to sea

Might the young human’s wake-up song now enter Lina’s vocabulary, so that when she calls, her seal mother will hear the gentle echo of the human girl’s voice? And might the human girl on the shore forever feel a connection to her song sister of the sea?

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