The first thing you notice about Nantucket’s colony of grey seals is the smell. You smell them before you see them. And when they look at you, with a strange mammalian sort of recognition, you realize they must be able to smell you, too.
Maybe. Today, there are only six of us humans out here and at least two hundred of them. We’re standing downwind of the seals. I had always thought it was Great Point Light that stood sentry here at the very tip of Nantucket, but it’s really the seals that guard the point.
I hitched a ride out to Great Point on Christmas Eve with members of Nantucket’s Marine Mammal Alliance, including two young kids who were visiting family over the holidays. We study the seals through binoculars, watch as they sun themselves on the sand. The air is bitingly cold. We speak in whispers, but their barking grows louder. They know we are here.
When I’ve see seals swimming, I’d always thought of them as sort of dog-like. Mermaid dogs, maybe. But to see them on land, some of the largest seals weighing hundreds of pounds, I’m reminded more of elephants. In the water, they seem playful. I watched a seal eat a skate this summer at the beach off ‘Sconset. It reminded me of the pie-eating contest that takes place on Main Street every Fourth of July. On land, they move with a lumbering quickness. It’s surprising that anything that big--without legs--can move so fast.
At the base of the lighthouse, those who remember swap stories about the March storm of 1984 which toppled Great Point, only to be reconstructed two years later. I try to imagine what it would have been like to live out here as part of a lighthouse keeper’s family, riding horses through the sand to town. Were the seals here then, too?
“Would you believe this lighthouse is only one year older than I am?” I ask one of the kids.
He studies the lighthouse, paint peeling, weathered by wind, blasted by sand. Then he considers me. To him, the lighthouse and I must both seem ancient.
On the way out to the point, we only pass two other trucks. In the first truck are three hunters sitting cheek-to-cheek in the cab. Dressed in camo with their faces painted grey, they look like they are coming home from battle. Maybe they are. In the other truck is more of the same. They ride slowly over the sand. I’m sure we each think the other is out of place here.
And the truth is, all of us humans are. This sandy strip we ride along is not our home. We are all just visitors, passing through. But the smell of the seals will cling to my clothes for the rest of the day.