Seals of California

Seals of California.  

My last column about waves prompted this story about my nephew, Stevie and his wellies – “rubber boots” in South African. Stevie’s father is from there. 

At the beach, three-year-old Stevie insisted on wearing his wellies to wade into the water because he didn’t want his feet to get wet. He kept walking out, deeper and deeper into the little waves. 

His parents warned him that the water would go over the top of his boots, but Stevie needed to live it to learn it.  

My sister describes the moment when the water won out – “His little eyes grew huge, his whole face scrunched up in shock and horror. And then a huge wail of outrage. As though he’d had no warning whatsoever.”  

She reflected on the times when she’d just needed to “get dunked by life.” She’d been unwilling to accept offered wisdom from others — and then how horrifying and excruciating those lessons could be. 

How we learn, how we teach, what a life-long subject. There’s being told, advised, warned…and there’s  discovering through exploring. The Goldilocks Method a friend calls this self-directed way. Try things on for size. You can’t really know what feels right without giving it a whirl. And “right” for you ain’t necessarily right for me. 

While in California, I was staring at 300-pound “teenage” Elephant Seals sleeping like sausages, covering the beach. While some dads were still around, the mothers had left  for the deep sea, so nursing was over.  

Why didn’t the babes swim away too? Docent’s answer: they don’t know how to swim. They’re mammals and would drown. That’s what happened to those born in January before the record storms flooded some beaches. 

So how will baby seals learn? Let’s call it “swim school.”  

But the thing is, they’re crashed out on the beach, not swimming. What kind of a school is that? 

Well, as it turns out, resting and lolling about is actually a learning in itself, about how to conserve energy. This is the primary lesson for Elephant Seals given their unusual  lifestyle. Every year, they spend long periods of weeks-to-months without eating — both on beaches, and  swimming thousands of miles to and from their feeding  grounds. Much of the year they live on stored energy. Energy conservation is their ticket to survival.

Swim school is self-directed with no teacher, but experience. Young seals learn what it takes to navigate in the water-world of buoyancy so different from the land world of gravity they were born onto. Swim school allows plenty of time to sleep between “lessons” on learning how  to hold their breath, and how to move in buoyancy. 

The key to successful learning for them is no anxiety. Why? Because anxiety’s expensive, and sucks up energy fast. Since they only dive for food the months they’re in deep seas, much of the year they don’t eat at all. So they “chill.”

For the first lesson in swimming, a young seal “hallumphs” into the shallow surf, sticks her head into the  water and holds it there. She’s preparing for those deep dives for food.  

Most dives average 30-minutes. Some have been clocked at over two hours and over a mile deep. 


Like Stevie and his wellies, these young seals learn by doing. They live it to learn it. And they won’t forget it. This is an embodied knowing — the whole being has  absorbed the knowing. It’s basic to life and survival and led by curiosity. Perhaps it's what we mean by wisdom.

Human schools train minds. And our minds are like  computers — brilliant for some uses and not relevant for others. There is much we can forget and much we cannot know about objective reality, using our analytical  brain.  

Our own experience — that’s where we find knowing. Often, it’s not able to be told. We can’t prove it, convince another, measure it. This can drive the ego crazy. It wants to know. 

Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr observes,” When ego invests in its own knowing, it’s convinced it has the whole  picture — at that point, growth stops. The journey stops. Nothing new is going to happen to us.” 

Rohr recently posted a commentary on a 14th century text on prayer, “The Cloud of Unknowing.” The  anonymous author says we must balance our knowing with a willingness to not know.  

There’s freedom in not having to know, in feeding the questions rather than fixing on the answers.  

The absolute arrogance of “knowing,” of being convinced, “I do know and no one else knows like I know” — well, wars come from that. 

“Beginner’s mind” is a Buddhist term for how to live life: always open to more learning, never assuming that I fully understand. Can you imagine what a different world this could be if we all lived with this kind of humility?

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