Paddling with the Seals of Nauset Marsh

Paddling with the Seals

A December kayak trip filled with reflection & new discoveries



The days have shortened and the sun looms lower in the sky. No one is on the water on this December 5th day, except a few flocks of buffleheads close to the shore, winter fowl bobbing in the surf off in the distance, and lucky commercial clammers, including my dear friends Paul and Dave, still able to work the flats during this unseasonably warm weather. Pushing off from the landing at Hemenway Road, Eastham, the first paddle stroke is always the finest of the day, a stroke of balance and release, nature purging the pressures of work.

Rounding the bend into Cable Creek the incoming tide pushes progress backwards. One thing about Nauset Marsh, the landings are on the west side and the deep water is east. After fifteen minutes of “treadmill” like paddling, the inlet to the ocean is in sight, the hard part of the paddle will cease to exhaust arms and limps, as the bow catches the incoming tide for the remainder of the paddle. I am out here to count the seals. A couple of weeks ago I was the only one out here, and shocked to see the great numbers of grey seals migrating into the marsh. In fourteen years on this marsh, I had never encountered such a large population of these carnivorous marine mammals. Labeling the grey and harbor seal carnivorous is extreme, I don’t ever feel like I am in jeoporady of being eating alive, and I paddle amongst them almost everyday.  They have had plenty of opportunity, if they so chose, to devour me for lunch. They belong to the suborder of pinniped, “fin-footed” or “wing-footed” mammals. As I have studied their behavior, up close, on the water, and hauled out, over the years, I can definitely see the link in evolution, to bears.

Swinging the kayak south, from the inlet, being swept down a channel that parallels the ‘locals only’ side of Nauset Beach, bobbing heads of seals start to appear in the distance. Usually the seals are by the inlet, catching flounder and striped bass as the fish move in and out of the marsh with the ebb and flow of moving water. Often groups of grey seals position themselves at the entrance of the narrowing channel in the inlet, and devour whatever tries to get past their open mouths. The fish have left the marsh, no boat traffic nor disturbance, this time of year the seals migrate south to the bars usually occupied by a half dozen clammers raking out steamers and quahog clams.

It’s interesting, though, that we call a large group of seals by any one of a number of names. Whales are simple grouped in a bod. However, groups of seals may be in a pod too, but may also be called a herd or colony. So take your pick. I like the term herd, it reminds me of buffalos in the wild west.

Signs of climate change are everywhere. There is more water in the marsh. Less flounder, as habitats of eel grass have been threatened. Yet, as I started to count the males first, since they are bigger, the seals certainly look well fed, not like they have missed a meal.  Grey seals are easily distinguished from harbor seals, not only are they much bigger in size, the grey seal has a horselike head. The male 8 feet in length may weight up to 800 pounds. Today, paddling by, it seems there are more males than females in this herd. That is not always the norm, the males often hold court over a harem of females, constantly circling the family for protection. And though the breeding season for grey seals runs from late September through early Marsh , there are 17 young pups huddled today within the large herd, protected by both male and female.

Sand bar extends, long and flat, undulating mounds pushed by winds into the narrow channel, an edge carved into a cliff-like plateau. The swift current draws the kayak towards the hauled out herd, the smell and characteristic breathing of grey seals is repulsive and the sound haunting. The innate curiosity, their big brown eyes, stare me down. Most times, they would  take refuge in the water, popping back up, some fifty yards away, like black dots, surfacing, at a safe distance. Not today though. A surveillance party of only seven very large males approached me from the shore, the remaining 123 seals simply held their ground on the bar. Which made it much easier to count them all. Have you ever tried to count a bunch of black dots swimming, diving, resurfacing, splashing? It’s a not easy.

Eventually they all calm down, with the wind shift, and I continued on my way, with the tide, into the channel, through the hole-in-the-wall, past Snow Shore and Fort Hill, to Hemenway Road Landing where now, the clammers had left, and my truck remained solo awaiting my return.

Written by:  Dick Hilmer of Explore Cape Cod

B.S. University of Vermont ’77; A.S.-Coastal Ecology ’06; is a MA licensed Earth Science Teacher; and is working on his Associates Degree in Environmental Technology.  Dick is the owner & Kayak guide for Eco Excursions.  Dick is a member of USCGAUX Flotilla 11-1 and a former District Staff Officer, District 1 Boston, charge with Paddlesport Safety. He is a registered Boy Scout Merit Badge Counselor for geology, enivironmental studies, and water safety. Dick was Coastal Awareness Coordinator for the prestigious Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown; where he created a network of nearshore and small boat and paddling routes, Waterways of CC.   He has been a program director at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History and the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, Idaho. Dick wrote the 5th edition Insiders Guide to Cape Cod and Back to the Water commentary series for the Cape Codder Newspaper.  Dick is one of the highest ranking American Canoe Association certified kayak instructors on Cape Cod and is on the water 250 days a year, and Explore Cape Cod paddled with over 3900 people in 2011. He lives by the creed, “Do what you love and love what you do”.

For more information, visit his website