A few years back I was working on an article for the magazine Wildlife in North Carolina Magazine about seals on the Outer Banks. For this project I teamed up with the folks at the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education in Corolla and the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
I’m a big fan of working with biologists. You would be surprised how often we are in need of the exact same thing – high quality photographs. Biologists and researchers are often looking for these photographs for a number of reasons. Be it photo identification database or even environmental education, the simple fact remains that high quality images of their subjects is often a priority that unfortunately does not fit into their budget. So by trading photographs for access to otherwise unobtainable opportunities, we are able to work out a win win relationship.
February of 2011, an extremely cold year on the OBX, I received a phone call informing me that Cape Hatteras National Seashore was receiving reports of seals on an island out in the Pamlico Sound. The island in question was in something of a grey area in terms of jurisdiction. The park service didn’t own it, even though it technically set inside of national seashore boundaries and therefore they had not sent anyone out to investigate.
Always up for an adventure I did what any eager wildlife photographer would have done and launched my kayak out into Oregon Inlet in below freezing temps and a 20 mile an hour wind howling in out of the Northeast. Arriving off the tip of the little island, I threw my binoculars up to scan the beaches. Expecting one or two seals, my brain didn’t actually register what I was really looking at. You see, we were on the tail end of a big nor’easter and so when I looked at the island, my mind registered “debris strewn beach.” I remember thinking to myself that it was just a bunch of logs piled up on the beach from the storm.
But then it hit me. Logs? This isn’t Washington state. Why the hell would logs have piled up here on this island? Paddling closer to the island, I suddenly realized that one of the logs just flopped itself off the beach and into the water – not the typical behavior of a log I might add.
Sitting my paddle down and went to reach for my binoculars when suddenly an adult harbor seal popped its head up out of the water to check me out 4 feet from the side of my boat. I was so surprised I almost flipped over. Scrambling for my binoculars I took another look at the beach and found something that according to science, had never been seen before in North Carolina – nearly 30 adult seals hauled out on this little island sunning themselves.
My jaw dropped. My heart skipped. I know the significance of this find. This was simply not supposed to be happening. These seals were technically not supposed to be here! The occasional seal pup would pop up on our beaches from time to time in the winter, but adults were rare. Yet here I was sitting in my kayak watching a full on colony of seals on the beach with another 5 or 6 bottling up out of the water to get a better look at me. Out of excitement I started to look around the area with the binoculars to other islands, to the edges of the distant marsh. More seals. They were everywhere. I felt like I had launched my kayak in North Carolina but popped out in Maine!