The pup flippers its way  up the steep and slick seaweed reef, struggling to reach its portly mother, lying placidly on her side. Halfway there and splayed vertically upon the rock like a novice climber with nowhere to go, the toddler-sized seal falls backward into the Pacific.  Even from high on the cliff, I can hear the plaintive mews. The seemingly too complacent mother peers down to her floundering pup. I count four now five more attempts. Each time, the valiant youngster makes it partway up the three foot wall of seaweed. I’m silently rooting, “Just a little farther, a little higher!” No. The little gray seal that could splashes back into the shallow channel. Undaunted, it fights the currents to return and try again.

Harbor Seal Pup, By Boyd Amanda, USFWS, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On this protected reef of Oregon’s Cape Arago rest five harbor seal adults, three with pups sleeping by their sides. The mother of this smallest baby is grayer in color than the other tawny moms, dry and safe on the reef. At last, the mom with the missing pup heaves herself headfirst toward her floundering pup to nuzzle its nose as if to say, “I’m not coming down, you’re coming up!”

So close, yet so far, the pup flails to seek traction where there is none. Once more, the pup slides down the wall that flows with dripping seaweed. When encouragement fails, the mother splashes down into the water. From this high vantage point, I can see underwater as the pup swims on top of her tail to hang on. The fully attentive parent attempts to haul herself and the pup back up onto the reef in one great lunge. But to no avail. Gripping a slippery tail with flippers is not an easy feat. She makes it up. Her baby does not.

Can you spot the struggling seal pup trying to reach its mother?

By this time, I’ve been joined by a teenage girl with stringy long blonde hair, wearing a windbreaker and torn jeans. In her arms, she cradles a chubby lap dog and hugs her gray-muzzled, old friend close. When she speaks her voice is soft like butter. Her breath smells of cigarettes.

“I just want to get down there and rescue the baby,” she exclaims in that odd crooning lilt, and I nod in agreement. Looking through binoculars at that whiskery face with those big and dark melt-your-heart eyes, I want to throw my arms around the exhausted pup too. Instead, we bear witness. It might not go well. Strength is failing. The mother cannot seem to help.

Or can she? The mother skids back into the sea. She guides her flailing baby to the gentler end of the reef and then belly flops her way back up. A random wave swashes the pup around the reef edge to the back side channel. Gone. We can’t see anything. The mother loafs on top, as if confident all is well. Walking a few steps for a better view, we’re worried. What happened? There! I see the torpedo-shaped pup snuggled tight against the safe harbor of its mother. Out of sight, the baby summited on its own, an important practice for a tough life ahead that demands fishing prowess, agility, determination and the sheer will, strength and speed to escape predators.

Like the best of mothers–whether a seal, an elephant, or a human– this harbor seal reminds me of the dual role as the rescuer who will do anything to save her child at any age and the teacher willing to step back and give plenty of room for independence and creative solutions. It’s a dance I’m still learning, even with my own 21-year-old son living far away in Missoula, choosing his pathway, and often serving as a teacher to me. The one constancy? The love that flows both ways.  I turn and smile at the forlorn girl who pulls her dog even closer to her heart, and gives that beatific smile back in our moment of connection.

Important note: If  you ever find a seal pup alone on a beach or a rock please walk away and never touch it or pick it up. A mother seal only has one pup per year, and the best way to keep it safe from danger is to leave the pup alone on land while she fishes.  She will return. The pup is not abandoned!

Harbor seal pup swimming, photo by Peter Pearsall, Oregon Islands NWR