SAVED BY A SEAL
By Theodore A. Cutting
The liveliest seal that father and I ever caught, and the only one
that ever got away from us after we had housed it, was Nab.
Although father has been catching seals for zoological gardens and
circuses almost as long as I can remember, and knows all their
tricks both in water and on land, yet Nab was too sharp for him.
It was my vain attempt to recapture him that terminated in the most
exciting experience I ever had with a seal.
Our seal-shed, which stood at the edge of the rocks fifteen feet
above the surf, held in Nab's day eight occupants, all nearly
The circus seals, which are caught and trained while young, had all
been sold; and these we expected to place in the zoological gardens
at Philadelphia and Cincinnati. Nab had not been in our possession
long, however, before he demonstrated his exceptional abilities,
and was straightway singled out to be trained, since a clever
circus seal is usually worth twice as much as a mere menagerie
Father generally takes the training into his own hands and sends me
out for the daily supply of fish; but I took such a liking to Nab
that I spent every evening teaching him.
He first drew attention to himself by his skill in stealing fish
from the others. Although I always gave him the first mouthful, to
keep him quiet, he would swallow it and be ready for the next
before I could get a second fish from the sack. He would eye a shad
in my hand as closely as he had once watched the young salmon
darting about in the waters of Monterey Bay. And the instant I let
go of it, intending to drop it into the open mouth of the next
seal, Nab would snap it as it fell.
He learned quickly the trick that all trained seals know—that of
balancing a ball on the nose. But for a seal that is not much of a
feat after the experience of keeping themselves constantly in poise
amidst the rolling breakers and surging swells. I taught him to
rise on his flippers and march, also to turn to right or left at
But his education had not proceeded very far when he picked up of
his own account the trick that none of his predecessors had been
able to acquire—how to escape from the little shed, where all a
seal's splashing must be in a square tank, and to be free again in
the boundless Pacific.
There were two rooms in the seal-house, one at the back for the
animals, and one in front for the boat, fish-lines and crates. The
seal quarters had no outside door, the only exit being into the
Father, unusually tired one night after we had both been out all
day for fish, went down alone to feed the seals. It was nearly
dark, and he closed the outside door without catching it. When he
opened the inside door and began to distribute the bass, Nab took
advantage of the dusk to steal every fish he could get his nose in
reach of. It seemed impossible to get a mouthful to any other seal
in the lot; and father, at last quite out of patience, gave him a
smart cut over his stubby little ears with the training whip.
Nab gave a shrill yelp, dived between father's legs, and slid out
into the boat room, the door to which had been left ajar. A seal
presents an awkward appearance hobbling on his queer flippers, but
he can make rapid progress. Before father could get his balance and
start after him, Nab was well out into the boat room.
Father stopped only to close the door against the rest of the
seals, and was again in pursuit; but Nab in the meantime had
reached the far end, bumped against the unfastened door and was
scuttling across the outer threshold. Father ran after him, only to
see his body floundering from one rock to another and to hear its
happy splash in the water below.
We both felt sorry to lose Nab, for the buyers will always pick out
a lively fellow and pay a better price for him than for another,
even though he be larger.
"Couldn't we trap him again?" I asked.
"I guess you'd have an interesting time catching as smart a seal as
that after he's already been once landed," said father. "One or two
of them that have slipped out of the lasso I've got hold of again;
but if a seal gets away after he's had one full sniff of
civilization he doesn't very often get near enough for a second."
"Would you know him if you should see him?" I asked.
"I don't think we'll ever get that near, but we might come to
within hearing distance, and I could tell his yap out of a
hundred," replied father.
Without saying anything to father about it, I made up my mind to
get Nab back, if such a thing were possible.
The main feeding-ground of the band of seals from which we take our
animals is just off Moss Beach, and I was almost certain that I
could get a sight of Nab there. Whether I should be able to tell
him, floating among the other seals, with only a little, shiny head
out of water, I had doubts; but I thought I could make him
There was only one fact that made me hesitate about carrying out my
plans, and that was the danger of swimming at Moss Beach. Father
had warned me two or three times about the strength of the undertow
there; but since my whole scheme depended upon getting out among
the seals, and I was a good swimmer, I decided to run the risk.
Telling father one night that I should go off in the morning to
fish from the rocks, I went early to bed, and was up next day by
sunrise. With a hook and line and half the length of an old lasso,
I was off for the rocks near Moss Beach.
As it was nearly low tide, I soon had a piece of abalone on my
hook, and was fishing.
No seals were in sight, but I kept a sharp lookout for them as I
fished. I had just caught a second shad—and it was something I had
never done before, to catch a shad off the rocks—when the heads of
half a dozen seals appeared on the swells to my left. More heads
came in sight as I grabbed up my fishes and hastened to the sandy
part of the shore.
I was in high spirits, for shad would tempt Nab as no other fish
could. In less than two minutes I had my clothes off, the lariat
knotted round my waist, and the short string that tied the fishes
together between my teeth.
The seals were still where I had first seen them, out less than two
hundred yards from shore.
I waded quickly into the water until the waves began to break over
my head, and then swam. Before I had taken three strokes one of the
fishes I held by my teeth began to lend assistance, jumping and
splashing about so under my nose that I thought best to beat a
When I turned to gain shallow water again, however, I felt at once
the strength of the undertow, which in my excitement I had entirely
forgotten. I could make no headway against it until a couple of big
waves came up from behind, and sent me far enough in to get a firm
With confidence that my shad would give me no more trouble, I again
turned to swim out. The water of the big waves that had boosted me
in now began to draw me out in the undertow.
I hesitated when I felt the strength of its sweep, and still more
as I thought of the greater force it would have when the tide
turned. Where I stood I could withstand it, but a little deeper in
I well knew it would be impossible to do so without the help of
"They just washed me ashore once; I guess they will again," I
thought, and threw myself into the current.
As I approached the seals most of them began to swim off, but two
or three of the larger males stood their ground, letting me come to
within a couple of rods of them. Nearer, however, they would not
let me draw, although their curiosity about me was great.
From the way they went circling round me, stretching their long
necks up out of the water to get a good view, I concluded I was of
a different species of water animal from those with which they were
familiar. Of Nab, however, I could see nothing.
"Fish, Nab, fish, fish!" I called, and held up for inspection one
of the shad I had brought.
At the sound of my voice there was a sharp little bark from behind,
such as Nab alone could give when I had an exceptionally delicate
morsel for him. I turned quickly, and saw at a distance his shining
"Fish, Nab, a fine shad for you, fish!" I coaxed.
He came a little nearer, and I was confident the bait would prove
irresistible. But my assurance was ill-founded, for in spite of
all my coaxing, Nab only circled round and round me until I was
dizzy trying to keep track of him. Either he had had fairly good
luck fishing for himself that morning, and was not suffering very
keen pangs of hunger, or else he still associated my benevolence
too closely with the little square splash-tub of the seal-house.
When I had begun to grow weary from the incessant motion necessary
to keep myself afloat, Nab suddenly made a dash so close that his
flippers brushed my side. He snapped the fish out of my hand, and
in the same instant he was again beyond reach. The fact that he had
come up for one fish encouraged me to hope he would come also for
the second, and I began to coax with renewed energy.
Nab was seemingly as much on his guard as before, however, and
again went through his complete list of maneuvers, first rearing
high out of the water, turning one side of his head and then the
other toward me, then ducking into the depths with a final flourish
of his tail, to reappear presently on the other side of me, as
sportive as before.
By this time I had begun to feel pretty well exhausted, and when I
suddenly thought of the undertow, I decided to swim back.
So intent had I been upon urging Nab near enough to get the lariat
about his neck that I had not once looked toward shore. As I now
did so I was terrified to find that one of the unaccountably
shifting currents along Moss Beach had swept me a long distance out
Without more nonsense, I dropped my remaining shad and started back
with long, even strokes. Nab snapped up the fish and disappeared in
the deep green water.
In spite of my efforts, I found that I was making small speed
against the current. The rock and tree on the point of land to my
right, by which I judged my progress, kept almost in the same
straight line. Knowing it was useless to spend my strength directly
against a current, I shifted my course in the direction of the
point. From the sand-hills to my left I could see that I now made
more progress, but the distance I had to cover was greater than
straight to Moss Beach.
Before I had covered half the distance I was almost too fatigued to
take another stroke; then the feeling of weariness seemed to leave
me, and I swam on as if turned into a machine. It was in a
mechanical way, too, that my brain seemed to work.
"If the undertow's as strong as when I came out," I thought, "I can
never get through the breakers."
I wished I had told father my plans. He might have come out with a
boat to get me. Then I wondered how it was that my arms and legs
kept on moving when there was so little feeling in them.
The roar of the breakers had suddenly grown louder, and I saw I was
within twenty yards of shore. I swam on with the same steady
strokes, but at a certain distance from the water-line came to a
I knew I was held back by the undertow, and that there was need of
all my remaining strength to get ashore. I increased my efforts,
but surged helplessly forward and backward with the rising and
When I thought I had given my last stroke, a big wave boosted me
in, followed by a second and third, until it seemed I must be where
I could reach bottom.
I let my feet down, down, until my toes at last touched the sand. I
dug them in with all my might, and battled desperately to keep my
Then came a little swell that lifted me from my feet, and the
terrible current swooped me back again. My strength was gone, and I
turned on my back to float.
"Perhaps I can try again if I rest," I thought, and meanwhile
drifted out until the roar of the breakers came but dully to my
ears—out where the water was deep and green.
Realizing that I paid for every minute of rest by drifting farther
from shore, I rolled wearily over, and with slow strokes started
At this moment Nab stuck his nose from the water not three feet
away. When I spoke his name, he came up so that I could put my hand
on his neck. For half a minute he was quiet, letting me bear my
weight upon him; then he showed by beginning to dive and circle
that his motive in coming to me was purely for sport. Every other
minute he would shake loose from my hand and then peer at me
beneath the water as my head sank under.
At last I got such a firm grip on the nape of his neck that I could
hold on even when he dived. With my other hand I untied the piece
of lasso from round me and tried to put the noose over Nab's head.
To this he had objections, and ducked and backed and splashed until
I nearly strangled. Forced to give up this scheme, I nevertheless
succeeded in getting a cinch round one of his hind flippers close
up to the body.
"March, Nab!" I then shouted. "Forward, march!"
He either had forgotten his lessons or exulted in the fact that he
was now at liberty to disobey orders, for instead of heading for
shore, he started in the opposite direction.
"Haw!" I cried. "Haw! Gee, then, gee!" But Nab would turn neither
to right nor left, and dragged me farther out to sea.
Thinking I might steer him by his flipper, I gave a jerk on the
lariat. What the seal thought I don't know, but when he felt the
noose tighten he seemed filled with sudden fright, and plunged into
the depths. Instinctively I took a big breath when I saw him
disappear, and laid hold of the lasso with both hands. In another
instant I was making the longest dive under water that I believe
man ever took.
It might have been pleasing to glide through the depths under other
circumstances and at moderate speed; but following down after this
uncertain guide at the rushing pace he set was the worst experience
I ever had. I should have let go my hold but for the thought that
there was no worse place than that from which I had started.
I hung on and on, even after it seemed I should burst for want of
air. Then came a shiver along the lariat and the sensation in my
body of scraping against a rock. Although I still held on tightly,
my speed suddenly slackened, and I knew the old lasso had been cut
in two on the rock.
Half-strangled though I was, I began pawing my way to the surface.
When at last my head broke through into the air, I hung to the
rock, sputtering and gasping. I didn't attempt to do more than get
my breath for, I think, a quarter of an hour; but at last I looked
round to see where I was.
At first I could not make it out, for Moss Beach was nowhere in
sight; then, when I saw a couple of huge pelicans perched on the
rock above my head, the truth came to me. Nab had taken me out
clear round the point and over to Seal Rocks—the island home of
seals and pelicans. How I ever could have taken such a dive and
come out alive is still a mystery to me, except when I remember how
the water churned in my ears at our terrific speed.
The rock upon which I hung had been Nab's birthplace, and the place
where he had been captured by father and me. Here he used to lie to
toast in the sun, and here also he had fled when he felt my line
round his flipper.
As soon as I could clear the salt water from my mouth and lungs I
began to work my way up on the rock.
Exhausted as I was, and benumbed with cold, this was no easy
matter; and once, when a fragment of rock gave way beneath my
fingers, I nearly slipped back into the water. But at last I
crawled up far enough to send off the pelicans in fright, and to
get where the sun would strike me. I expected to blister my back,
but I thought it would be a welcome change from the freezing
After the blood had begun to warm up a little in my veins I began
to think of getting back to the mainland.
It was a distance of only a hundred yards from the rock across, but
when I looked down into that green water and recalled my recent
experiences I shrank from sliding in as from death itself. I
measured the distance twenty times with my eyes, and the same
number of times assured myself that there would be no undertow here
with the tide coming in, but I could not bring myself to let go the
rocks that felt so firm and good.
When I observed, however, that it was nearly high tide, and that I
should have to swim against the tide if I waited much longer, I
climbed down without more fooling, and struck back for shore.
Although a side current shifted me from my direct course so that I
had to land upon another beach than I had intended, I got ashore
without difficulty, and hastened across the point to Moss Beach,
where I had left my clothes.
I never again attempted to recapture Nab, nor have I had an
opportunity to repay him for towing me to Seal Rocks; but I have
seen him a number of times since, and have often heard his happy
bark from the rocks along the coast.