By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“You give us hope for the future.”
Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network co-founder Brenda Peterson had those words this afternoon for the group’s youngest volunteers, including Sumaiyah and Falhado:
The sisters presented Brenda and co-founder Robin Lindsey with bouquets toward the end of a gathering in their honor this afternoon at The Hall at Fauntleroy.
Twelve years have passed since a month full of seal-pup sightings on the West Seattle shores brought the two together in an effort that became a full-fledged Marine Mammal Stranding Network. This afternoon’s party include a chance for Robin, a photographer, and Brenda, a much-published author, to share their stories, in a conversation moderated by Lynn Shimamoto, a 7-year SSMMSN volunteer. We recorded it on video:
The conversation was a celebration of volunteers as well as a chance to share memories.
Lynn started with her own story of finding Seal Sitters after moving to the area and looking for a volunteer group to get involved with.
Her first question for the co-founders: How did they grow up and get involved in activism? Brenda grew up in the High Sierra. She wanted to give back for “the beauty” she was born into. “The people you meet on the beach are just as interesting as the animals.’ That “restores my faith in my species.”
Robin is the daughter of teachers and had long been an artist. Her brother had a darkroom and she developed a love for photography – dubbed “the pint-size paparazzi” in childhood. She grew up back east but visiting Seattle, she perceived it as “magical” and wanted to live here. She’s been in West Seattle for more than 30 years.
Brenda too came from the East Coast, almost 40 years ago. “I think we live in heaven here,” with bookstores, coffee, wildlife.
What is so special about seals? Robin said, “I didn’t know anything about seals,” then one day she spotted one at Seacrest, and then shortly after that, a beach sighting at Alki brought her back to the shore where “Spud” (August 2007) came out of the water and joined her on the beach. She is fascinated by the fact they live part on shore, part in the water.
How did Seal Sitters get started? The two had slightly different stories: Brenda was on the beach with a pup and just a few people to protect it; Robin was there with a big camera and agreed to take photos. At least, that was Brenda’s recollection. Robin recalled being asked for help by Brenda when someone was on the beach throwing rocks at a seal.
They collaborated on a children’s book centered on two seal pups, “Leopard and Silkie.”
Their story: Robin recalled that first year with seal pups seemingly everywhere. She went out first thing in the morning, checking the beaches, and she found seal tracks one day near Duwamish Head. Under the rocks, she found a spotted seal that so resembled a leopard that it got the nickname Leopard; another seal at a different beach, nicknamed Silkie (after the Celtic-legend half-human/half-seal), wound up finding Leopard, and over the course of a week “they were together, and it was a special thing.” That inspired Brenda to write her first children’s book, collaborating with Robin’s photos of the two.
Though she had written “about 15” adult books by then, “we were shocked when we sold it.” It’s sold tens of thousands of copies around the world and that bruught them letters from kids as far away as Europe and the Middle East.
“You really have to love every single word for a children’s book, because you only get 900 of them,” Brenda observed as they discussed the logistics.
Robin talked about the realization that Seal Sitters might be the first humans a seal has seen. There was the reminder that SS is a full-fledged Marine Mammal Stranding Network – though most of those are run by wildlife agencies (some of which were represented at the event as SSMMSN’s partners).
“What gave you the idea you could run a stranding network?” asked Lynn.
Robin said, in effect, they just did it. They drew about 70 people to their first training. But both admitted they’d never even expected to run a group. “It was a challenge because we had a pretty good volunteer base, but didn’t have the technology to manage it,” Robin recalled. In the beginning, a seal report would result in a ton of cold calls to figure out who was available to respond. Then they got a database helping them organize who was available when.
How did they learn about seals? Expert mentors.
It’s not all about “sitting” seals that turn up on local beaches. Robin talked about a project where a seal haul-out was being plagued by coyotes feeding on pups when other prey ran out. So they tested a theory – human urine scattered around the haul-out area (not in West Seattle – on an island) to scare them away. “And it worked!”
Seal Sitters’ accomplishments have included beach signage, the Alki sculpture (2013 dedication photo above), banners, even a broadcast public-service announcement. They’ve trained more than a thousand volunteers over the year.
What’s it like to seal-sit?
“The seals are our neighbors,”Brenda began. Beyond that, it’s an opportunity to share community with other humans, too – to share compassion for each other as well as for the animals.
Q&A brought up the whale strandings to which Seal Sitters have responded, including the Arroyos gray whale that made international news for its stomach full of trash, and the Fauntleroy humpback that died just south of the ferry dock (at left in our 2016 photo below are Robin and SSMMSN’s David Hutchinson, who was unable to attend today):
Robin said situations like those are a huge challenge because of so much spectator and media interest.
How do you deal with people who are combative?
Brenda: You have to figure out why they’re behavng the way they are. “one of the things we’ve learned is that we represent the face of the public, so you have to be restrained.” She always carries binoculars – offering a chance to view might distract and calm someone.
Robin: Her patience has “grown thinner” over the years, but she always appreciates the opportunity to educate people. “There’s always someone who will get in your face,” but she tries to help the belligerent people understand “this is a gift.” Invariably there’s somebody you can’t deal with.
They were asked about some of the more unusual hotline calls they’ve received: “A seal who ran across the street” or someone thinking they saw a whale in distress. One little kid thought a seal pup had followed him home.
(Forte, 2009, photo by Colby)
Robin recalled Forte the seal pup who came up on shore and fell asleep under the sign that had info about who to call. She also talked about the realization that kids could be part of Seal Sitters too – “that has been just the most amazing thing.” One young volunteer, Etienne, isn’t involved any more because she’s gone off to college! Another young volunteer, Robin recalled, was bold about telling people they need to leash their dogs on the beach.
As if on cue, that’s when volunteers Sumaiyah and Falhado came up and presented Brenda and Robin with bouquets and thanked them.
They in turn offered big thanks to the volunteers. As Robin noted, “The amount of time that everybody puts into this group is astounding.”
A state Fish and Wildlife rep stood up and said the education they’ve provided is invaluable and helps restore his faith in humanity “magnificent service to the fact we’re connected to the environment.”
Finally, Brenda added, directed to the children, “You all give me hope … you give us hope for the future.”
The event was coordinated by JoDean Edelheit, who “came out of retirement” as a longtime volunteer to organize it.
P.S. Lest you get the wrong impression from all this, Seal Sitters isn’t going away – Robin is stepping away, and that provided a reason for the party, but the organization will continue going strong. Watch for word of the next volunteer training if you’d like to be involved; check updates on the group’s activities at blubberblog.org; and if you see a marine mammal on the shore or seeming to be in distress offshore, call 206-905-SEAL.