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 full-grown.

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 animal.

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 the word.

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 front room.

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 recognize me.

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 retreat.

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 footing.

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 incoming waves.

"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 dog-shaped head.

"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 to sea.

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 standstill.

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 falling waves.

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 footing.

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 back.

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 process.

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.